How 3 decades of weak Democratic messaging undermined Medicare and Social Security

Former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday excoriating Republicans for the damage they caused their own party by supporting the Iraq war.  The title of the piece asks whether the Republican party can ever recover from that one mistake.  Considering that Democrats refuse to continue blaming Republicans for the Iraq war or its aftermath impact on the deficit, I’m going to venture that yes, the Republicans will recover fine.

When you walk through Noonan’s criticisms of the Iraq war, you’ll find yourself agreeing, then noting that Democrats never make these arguments about Iraq.  And I’m not talking about Democratic activists – we talk about this all the time – I’m talking about anyone holding an election certificate.  They just don’t talk about the linger damage that Republicans have caused our country because of their war of convenience in Iraq.

Let me walk you through two of Noonan’s key points:

1. It ruined the party’s hard-earned reputation for foreign-affairs probity.

Yup. But did you hear President Obama mentioning this when he was criticized for Benghazi? Did you hear any Democrats, besides the Netroots? Nope. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, the two leading the Benghazi hysteria, were huge boosters of the war in Iraq. How many Americans died as a result of Graham’s and McCain’s lies? Hint: More than three.

2. It undermined respect for Republican economic stewardship.

If that’s true, they got over it. Democrats never talk about how Republicans are responsible for the debt. That should have been the debate from the end of the Reagan years until today: Reagan caused a huge deficit, Clinton fixed it, Bush caused it again. Period.

Our elected officials should have never stopped talking about the fact that the Republicans put us into deficit – and Bush’s tax cuts, wars, and recession inflated that deficit even more, as did congressional Republicans gutting the stimulus and cost-reducing measures in Obamacare – and that’s why we’re now talking about cutting Medicare and Social Security, it’s why Head Start centers are now cutting back their operations, and it’s why air travel has already been severely disrupted and will only get worse.  Because everything the Republicans have done from the Reagan years to today has led to higher and higher costs and deficits.

All the budget conversations we’re having right now wouldn’t be happening had we not passed George Bush’s trillion dollar tax cut in 2001.  But Democrats jumped on board in 2001 and never looked bad.  Had they kept talking about how the Republicans broke the bank with their tax cuts, and with their war of inconvenience in Iraq, when it came time to pay for those dalliances, by gutting the budget, Democrats could have credibly pointed a finger and the public would have listened.  But they didn’t.

pr, messaging

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Democrats have an awfully short attention span.  Perhaps it’s that donkey thing, versus the renowned memory of the elephant.  Republicans will remind you of a meme for years until you’re absolutely sick of hearing about it, and then they’ll tell you about it some more.  Democrats will issue a sole press release and think they’ve done pretty much all that can be done to get their message out there.  Had Democrats kept talking about how Republicans broke the bank in 2001 and 2003, and kept hammering home that some day America would be forced to pay for this, I think we’d have an entirely different budget debate today.  People might have been sick of the message, but when the time came to talk about gutting Medicare and Social Security, Americans would suddenly remember all those years of that tiresome Democratic talking point, and they’d suddenly say, “hey, they were right.”

Of course, it’s not just the Bush tax cuts and Iraq.  The Democrats unwillingness to wage a decent PR battle on either the stimulus or health care reform, has also fed into the larger budget damage we’re facing today.

The Republicans effectively won on the stimulus battle in two ways: 1) They gutted the stimulus, ensuring the economy would remain weak, and deficits high; and 2) They used the weak economy to “prove” that the stimulus was a trillion dollar waste of money, and ergo, President Obama caused the deficit.  By giving up on defending the stimulus, Democrats fed into the GOP lie that the deficit was the Democrats fault, and thus the Democratic federal budget needed to be gutted.

Then there’s health care reform.  The Democrats never sufficiently explained to the American people the problem or the solution.  Democrats should have said that without health care reform, deficits would sore and programs like Medicare and Social Security would ultimately be on the chopping block.  And when the Republicans, and conservative Dems, put their collective feet down and got in the way of real reform, specifically the public option, but also drug importation and other cost-cutting measures, Democrats should have loudly and often told the public that this obstructionism was going to lead to ever-increasing deficits and eventual gutting of the federal budget.  But they didn’t.  So we got half a loaf at best of health care reform, health care prices in America are still insanely expensive, and that increasing cost is going to gut Medicare and Medicaid, and make your Social Security payments a pittance of the money you’ll need to survive in old age.

Don’t get me wrong, the administration did raise this point.  Here’s a study the Social Security Administration did on how rising health care prices would impact Medicare and Medicaid. But it’s one thing to do a study, it’s another to create a talking point that you raise every single day  for the next ten years until people are sick of it.  It’s exactly what the Republicans did on health care reform, and the stimulus.  For President Obama’s first term, nary a day went by that we didn’t hear from Republicans about the “failed stimulus” and “socialist Obamacare,” both of which supposedly broke the bank.  It was an effective message that stuck, all the better because Democrats simply gave up, convinced it was better to write off the issues all together.

Same goes for the Bush tax cuts.  Yes, I will give the President credit for doing a much better job the past few years in talking incessantly about how the Republicans are forcing these budget cuts, like the sequester, in order to save “tax cuts for the rich” – and his message is resonating – where was this talk from 2001 to 2010?

Because Democrats gave up on talking about the budgetary impact of the Bush tax cuts and Iraq, and the budgetary impacts of Republicans refusing to pass a decent stimulus and decent health care reform, Democrats ceded the budget debate to the Republicans, and are now suffering the consequences.  And hell, they ceded the debate when they stopped talking about how Saint Reagan ruined the budget in the first place by setting the GOP for decades of unnecessary wars and ill-affordable tax cuts.

In politics, every moment of weakness comes back to haunt you.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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