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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18 Responses to “How 3 decades of weak Democratic messaging undermined Medicare and Social Security”

  1. BeccaM says:

    I hear ya. How I wish we lived in a world and in an America where none of it was true.

  2. condew says:

    I hate everything you said, and nothing you said is wrong.

  3. condew says:

    Dems haven’t caught up to the Republican technique. Dems still live in the past where you had an argument based on mutually agreed-upon facts, beat out a compromise, passed a law to settle the issue and moved on. Republicans do none of that. Republicans will not accept any fact that might lead to a conclusion other than the one they favor, they will not compromise, they will not allow a law to be passed, and they never move on; rehashing the same issue for decades.

    Democrats really do need to update their technique to counter the current Republican intransigence; but it must be a party wide effort. Note how when Republicans give an interview, the first sentence out of every Republican’s mouth is the same quote of the day, usually in the same words. I’d hate to see Democrats conform to the same mindless lockstep, but on any issue, the media can always find a Democrat who will buck the party’s overall stand and muddy up the message, and that has to stop. Dems need party discipline; you want the support of the group when you need it, they you better support the group when they need it.

  4. Kurt Weldon says:

    Republicans are Moe. Democrats are Shemp. Therein lie all our problems.

  5. citizen_spot says:

    I suspect that the red team bad/blue team good tribalism demonstrated by some Gen X and younger folks on the “left” can be attributed to the fact that they have never known anything but the corporate beholding DLC/blue dog/new dems/third way mind set. For them, the Democratic party has always been right of center, but not as far right as the GOP. For them, moderate republicanism is “left”, and the actual left of center Dems are fringe elements to be ignored or derided as not serious or delusional. To them there are huge differences between the two parties and if you dare criticize the Democratic party, look out! I worry that it will be very hard to pull the party (or country) back to the left without the country having to suffer greatly due to the failed policies (for actual people) being pushed on us by the corporate masters.

  6. dula says:

    The Democrats can’t hang the cost of the Iraq War, and its resulting budget busting, on Republicans because they voted to give Bush authorization to go to war. They didn’t want to appear soft on national security so they let Republicans bully them into the war, and then got out maneuvered again because they couldn’t then criticize what they voted for.
    Joe Biden, who the Dem electorate fawns all over, was the one who wouldn’t allow the weapons inspectors who knew there were no WMDs remaining in Iraq, testify in Congress. Both parties owned the Iraq War from its start.

  7. Butch1 says:

    Democrats just don’t really care. They lie about it when they are campaigning.

  8. cole3244 says:

    they are dems in name only, in reality they are gopers without the attitude.

  9. karmanot says:


  10. justsomeguy05 says:

    The Democratic party sold out it’s principles in the 1980’s with the emergence of the DLC. Any populist beliefs slowly died over the next couple of decades as the Democratic party became a corporate party that supported the policies of transnationals and the upper 1% over what was best for the working class. Union support – gone. Single payer healthcare – nope. Bring on deregulation, domestic surveillance, endless wars, support for outsourcing, “free trade”, “reforming” social security and medicare. The parties are nearly identical on economic issues. The few differences are mostly on a few social issues.
    Has this change in core beliefs helped Democrats to compete for funds – certainly. Has it been good for the American people – certainly not.

  11. ComradeRutherford says:

    The Democrats sold out to the Republicans during the Iran-Contra hearings in Congress. Senator Inyoue bravely led the Democratic contingent in Congress and publicly declared that no matter how much evidence of treason they uncovered in their investigation (which was a lot!), that the Dems would never dare hold anyone accountable to the law – especially not The President, Saint Ronald Reagan.

    Ever since that day, the Dems have abandoned their constituents and taken up position on the moderate-Republican spectrum.

    And so today we have a ‘hard-left Liberal’ Democratic President who is much farther to the right than Richard Nixon!

  12. BeccaM says:

    Wait just one damned second. Peggy Noonan? She was one of the biggest rah-rah cheerleaders for the Iraq war going back to the very beginning. (Seriously, check out that link.) Is she ever going to own up to her own complicity in the war?

    Anyway, after a while, as with the GOP and it’s current obsession with ‘failing to get our message out’ — as opposed to asking themselves whether the real problem is their policies are odious to the majority of Americans, I think we need to ask ourselves the same question about the Dems.

    Is it messaging — or have they also become a party whose policies are, in fact, increasingly odious and are now obsessed with message rather than substance?

    Obama could have ended both wars the day he took office. Yet he continued the occupations and indeed escalated one of them. Defense budgets continue to go up.

    The PPACA law was specifically designed to support corporate profits over good public policy. It’s been correctly pointed out that the top complaint about ‘Obamacare’ is the health insurance mandate. So why didn’t they come up with a solution that used a different approach, like Medicare for All? Why was drug importation and Medicare negotiation for drug prices given away for nothing at all?

    Doing nothing would have resulted in the reinstatement of pre-2001 tax rates. There have been no investigations or prosecutions for the massive economy-destroying fraud from the banksters. The stimulus itself was designed to go mainly to the plutocrats who caused the crisis in the first place. It’s ‘trickle-down’ all over again, only that ain’t rain. And it is Obama himself who keeps putting anti-progressive proposals on the table, including Social Security and Medicare cuts. Plus he and the Dems never take the step to ensure the next Shock Doctrine crisis won’t happen; indeed, they hand back the hostages and agree with the GOP to schedule the next Shock for 60-90 days hence.

    The sequester itself is hurting the economy right now. It’s hurting regular people right now. And they’re continuing to play their ‘Grand Bargain’ games in Washington.

    At some point, it behooves us to ask whether it’s weakness or intentional, and if we’re not being foolish even to ask if it was the former. Much of the Democratic leadership benefited handsomely during the divergence in income inequality. Nearly all of the Senate are card carrying members of the 0.01%, multimillionaires who have a personal stake in low tax rates for the rich. In fact, it’s damned hard now to get elected if you’re not connected and wealthy. None of them will ever have to depend on Medicare or Social Security to stay healthy and out of poverty when they retire — and all of them will have that option, to retire to a life of comfort and opulence whenever they choose to do so.

    They are also clearly far more loyal to their corporate masters in finance, health care, petroleum, Big-Ag, and the military-industrial complex than they are to us regular American citizens. The only difference seems to be that the GOP has gone nuts, especially on social issues and domestic policies, whereas the Dems want to keep running the machine in the same direction it’s been going since Saint Ronnie treasoned his way into office. (I know, some of this goes back to Nixon…who it is clear now also engaged in treason, but I digress.)

    The Obama administration — and the Dems — have proven they can play hardball when they want to. So here’s the question: Is it a failure in messaging that undermines Medicare and Social Security, or a deliberate choice in messaging to ensure the neo-liberal/neo-conservative corporatist agenda is carried out? They’re the ones who said “We have to do this, or SS/Medicare will end up on the chopping block.” Whatever happened to “We have to do this because it’s the right thing to do and will improve the lives of millions of Americans”?

    Every time I hear the words “entitlement spending” and “entitlement reform” cross a senior Democratic leader’s lips, I’m more convinced it’s the latter. Likewise when the only stimulus most people saw was funded by raiding the SS/Medicare dedicated funding stream, and the Dems were all on board with the dire and entirely artificial ‘fiscal cliff’ BS. Same thing with the sequester.

    At the core of analysis and logic when trying to pick apart a situation, one needs to make the key query: Who benefits? Who stands to gain here? Obviously the Plutocratic Bastard Class, as I call ’em. Who works for them? Our elected leaders, most of whom now are full members of the PBC.

  13. nicho says:

    Clinton wanted to gut Social Security and Medicare — and would have, had not Monica Lewinsky intervened on bended knee.

  14. lynchie says:

    If the 99% are to have a shot at getting a living wage and some sort of affordable health care we can’t do it with the two parties we have now. They don’t bring things up to a vote so they avoid having anyone on record who voted for stupidity or against something that may help the 99%. No one challenges the President and his attempt at scuttling SS and Medicare. No one in the media or in the government. We have no voice, or any way to challenge or get answers. These neocon lefties who constantly say phone your Congressman or email don’t realize. You never talk to the man but to some paid aide who gives you kind words but doesn’t write anything down and emails are only answered with a request for money never an answer to your question or concern. They don’t go out in public but instead hide at their lobbyists favorite restaurant and the bags of money get passed and the laugh and smoke a cigar and drink the best wines until someone at the table says “I wonder what the poor people are doing now…..who cares fuck ’em. So you are right Bill we must stabilize the unions, who in turn with numbers can effectively push forward people who represent us the 99% and not some shit heel banker or broker.

  15. Hue-Man says:

    I call her “The Torture Lady” since I watched her on This Week back in 2009. Here’s HuffPo:

    “Peggy Noonan went even further, articulating a position that upends George Santayana’s famous quote: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

    “Some things in life need to be mysterious,” said Noonan, adding, “Sometimes you need to just keep walking.” She also added:

    “It’s hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking, oh, much good will come of that.””

  16. Bill_Perdue says:

    It’s hardly weakness on the part of Democrats.

    It’s connected with the fact that they refuse to bring charges of treason and the commission of war crimes against both Bushes, their cabinets and their heads of the NSA and CIA. The Republicans under Bush reciprocated by declining to press the same charges against Clinton for his callous and indescribably savage murder of half a million children by Bill Clinton. Just as they decline to bring charges or attempt to impeach Obama for detaining and murdering American citizens, attacking Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan and committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

    Both parties are equally at fault for US wars and war crimes just as both are equally at fault for the criminal attacks on unions and the standard of living of working people. Both parties, time and again, have demonstrated their arrogant criminality and their total and utter unfitness to rule.

    The job of the left, remembering that Democrats are not part of the left, is not try to prolong the death agony of capitalism with meaningless and temporary reforms. Our first and only job is to organize for revolutionary change by creating a stronger workers movement, stronger unions independent of the twin parties of capitalism. Then a revitalized left with organic connections to unions and the workers movement can proceed to create a workers state with a government of by and for workers and small farmers.

    That’s the only kind of government that can successfully take steps to confiscate the wealth of the rich. punish them for their many crimes and build a society that guarantees socialized medicine, quality housing, nutrition and trade union levels of pay and benefits for workers, students, retirees, job trainees and the unemployed and put an end to their terrible wars of agression.

  17. TiberiusB says:

    It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again, you are assuming that the Democrats aren’t effectively on the same page as the GOP where economic matters are concerned. It’s a little hard to read how Obama wants to damage Social Security and Medicare and then read that the Dems are simply weak and bad at messaging. Neoliberlism is the snake we need to worry about beheading.

  18. nicho says:

    Noonan’s an idiot. Republicans had no “foreign affairs probity.” Rememeber Nixon’s treason that cost 30,000 American lives in Vietnam? Rememeber Iran-Contra? Remember Central American death squads? Economic stewardship? The economy, along with hte middle class, has been in a death spiral since the mentally ill Reagan was put in the White House. It wasn’t the Iraq war, Noonan.

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