Saturday, February 25, 2023
After Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) named him last summer to the University of Virginia’s governing board, Bert Ellis had a platform to influence the school’s administration. He spotted a potential target, a vice provost named Louis P. Nelson, tasked with community engagement, public service and academic outreach programs.
Nelson, who reports to U-Va.’s chief academic officer, Provost Ian Baucom, is also a professor of architectural history and an award-winning scholar and teacher. He has researched buildings and landscapes that shaped slavery in West Africa and the Americas, including at the prestigious public university that Thomas Jefferson founded in Charlottesville.
Ellis was unimpressed. “Check out this numnut who works for Baucom and has nothing to do but highlight slavery at UVA,” . . . .
That and other text messages from Ellis were obtained last week through Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act by Richmond-based author Jeff Thomas, who provided them to The Washington Post. They provide an unfiltered window into the conversations of a controversial board newcomer who has voiced skepticism of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, been protective of the legacy of Jefferson and advocated for a new course for the flagship university.
They also underscore mounting political tensions throughout public higher education as Republican governors and their appointees challenge university culture, norms and operations.
The Virginia legislature voted this month to confirm Ellis, Pillion, Long and another Youngkin appointee, Douglas D. Wetmore, to four-year terms on the U-Va. Board of Visitors. For now, appointees from Youngkin’s Democratic predecessors continue to hold a majority of the 19 board seats. That will change as members rotate off and Youngkin fills openings.
After this article published online, Ellis relayed his reaction Thursday through a blog called Bacon’s Rebellion. “We’re like Patton,” Ellis was quoted as saying. “We go forward. We don’t retreat.”
Thomas, 38, author of the 2019 book “The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power after 2016,” has previously submitted FOIA requests to U-Va. on topics including university admissions. He has specialized in analyzing the state’s political culture and is an advocate for institutional transparency. He asked for the Ellis texts in August, but U-Va. refused to release them. Then he sued. A Richmond judge this month ordered the university to send him redacted documents.
In a statement to The Washington Post, the university said: “These text messages demonstrate a disappointing disregard for the hard work of UVA faculty and staff, as well as the University’s core values of civil discourse and honor.
Youngkin’s office also declined to comment.
Thomas faulted U-Va., Youngkin and Ellis. “The University squandered taxpayer money in court for six months and illegally withheld these documents from the public because they demonstrate Governor Youngkin’s Board appointees are ignorant reactionaries consumed by hatred and neo-Confederate fantasies,” he said in an email to The Post.
U. Bertram Ellis Jr., who goes by Bert, earned two U-Va. degrees in the 1970s: a bachelor’s in economics and a master’s in business administration. His board biography describes Ellis as a serial entrepreneur and investor who runs a business based in Atlanta. Legislative records say Ellis resides in Hilton Head, S.C.
Like many universities, U-Va. in recent years has confronted its role in slavery and the Jim Crow era. In 2007, the Board of Visitors issued a statement of regret for the university’s use of enslaved people from its founding in 1819 through the end of the Civil War in 1865. Scholars in 2018 issued an in-depth report concluding that “slavery, in every way imaginable, was central” to the founding and early operations of the university. In 2021, the university dedicated a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers in a prominent location on what U-Va. calls the Grounds.
Soon after his term began on July 1, Ellis was reaching out via text to other board members and U-Va. officials. In some messages, he expressed disdain for the administration of university President James Ryan and the leader of the board, Whittington W. Clement, who holds the title of rector and was named to the governing body in 2015 by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
In 2021 Ellis criticized how guides were portraying Jefferson to campus visitors. They seemed intent “on ‘contextualizing’ Mr. Jefferson as a slave holder and rapist,” Ellis wrote at the time . . . Several weeks after they both joined the board, Long sent Ellis links to an opinion piece in the New York Post criticizing student efforts to “erase” Jefferson from the U-Va. campus and a Cavalier Daily article about the removal of an inscription to a Confederate soldier from a campus memorial known as the Whispering Wall.
Long replied: “We get a majority soon....policies can be reversed.” Long appeared to be referring to Youngkin’s power to reshape the board through appointments. The Cavalier Daily’s editorial board opposed the Ellis appointment.
On Aug. 5, Ellis replied to a woman who congratulated him on his appointment.
“Many thanks,” he wrote. “This is going to be a battle royale for the soul of UVA and a microcosm of what must happen across America to save the soul of our country.” He urged her to join the Jefferson Council. “We need to build this into a big Army to fight agst the UVA Adm and unfortunately to also fight agst the UVA Alumni Asso which has become a total mktg arm of the Presidents office.”
I hope that alumni and suburbanites who were duped into voting for Youngkin (and the other extremists on his ticket) will wake up to their error and realize that in 2023 and beyond they need to vote a straight Democrat ticket to combat Youngkin's and the GOP's far right agenda.
Friday, February 24, 2023
Many on America's political right continue to eagerly embrace a form of toxic masculinity where being a tough guy is all important and any form of sensitivity or introspection - much less empathy for others - is deemed aweakness. Hence why a significant portion of the political right and their spokesmen and women laud Vladimir Putin notwithstanding the atrocities, including the murder of children, and crimes against humanity being committed at Putin's direction. Then there are the evangelicals and Christofacists who want the male of the house to be the patriarch to whom women and children are to be subservient and obedient. Throw in Putin's cynical empowerment of the Russian Orhodox Church, attacks on gays and blather about "family values" and these folks go into a near swoon. It is truly sick, but some in the right even hope for a Russian victory. A column in the New York Times looks at this sickness on the political right and how a cult of "tough guys" regardless of how reprehensible (think Trump) they may be. Here are column highlights:
A democracy — imperfect, as all nations are, but aspiring to be part of the free world — is invaded by its much larger neighbor, a vicious dictatorship that commits mass atrocities. Defying the odds, the democracy beats back an attack most people expected to succeed in a matter of days, then holds the line and even regains ground over the months of brutal fighting that follow.
How can any American, a citizen of a nation that holds itself up as a beacon of freedom, not be rooting for Ukraine in this war?
Yet there are significant factions in U.S. politics — a small group on the left, a much more significant bloc on the right — that not only oppose Western support for Ukraine but also clearly want to see Russia win. . . . . . what lies behind right-wing support for Vladimir Putin.
Putin isn’t the only foreign autocrat America’s right likes. Viktor Orban of Hungary has become a conservative icon, a featured speaker at meetings of the Conservative Political Action Committee, which even held one of its conferences in Budapest.
conservative admiration for Orban, I’m sorry to say, makes rational sense, given the right’s goals. If you want your nation to become a bastion of white nationalism and social illiberalism, a democracy on paper but a one-party state in practice, Orban’s transformation of Hungary offers a road map. And that is, of course, what much of the modern Republican Party wants. . . . Yet Orban is not, as far as I can tell, the subject of a right-wing cult of personality. . . .
[I]t’s a fairly creepy cult at that. For example, back in 2014 a National Review columnist contrasted Putin’s bare-chested horseback riding with President Barack Obama’s “metrosexual golf get-ups.”
Until the invasion of Ukraine, Putinphilia also went hand in hand with extravagant praise for Russia’s supposed military effectiveness. Most famously, in 2021 Ted Cruz circulated a video contrasting a Russian military recruitment ad featuring a muscular man doing manly stuff with a U.S. ad highlighting the diversity of Army recruits. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military isn’t the best idea,” Cruz declared.
What was the basis for this worship of Putinism? I’d argue that many people on the right equate being powerful with being a swaggering tough guy and sneer at anything — like intellectual openness and respect for diversity — that might interfere with the swagger. Putin was their idea of what a powerful man should look like, and Russia, with its muscleman military vision, their idea of a powerful country.
It should have been obvious from the beginning that this worldview was all wrong. National power in the modern world rests mainly on economic strength and technological capacity, not military prowess.
But then came the invasion, and it turned out that Putin’s not-woke, unemasculated Russia isn’t even very good at waging war.
Why has Russia’s military failed so spectacularly? Because modern wars aren’t won by strutting guys flexing their biceps. They’re won mainly through logistics, technology and intelligence (in both the military and the ordinary senses) — things, it turns out, that Russia does badly and Ukraine does surprisingly well.
The key to understanding right-wingers’ growing Ukraine rage is that Russia’s failures don’t just show that a leader they idolized has feet of clay. They also show that their whole tough-guy view about the nature of power is wrong. And they’re having a hard time coping.
This explains why leading Putinists in the United States keep insisting that Ukraine is actually losing. Putin is “winning the war in Ukraine,” declared Tucker Carlson on Aug. 29, just days before several Ukrainian victories. There’s still a lot of hype about a huge Russian offensive this winter; the truth, however, is that this offensive is already underway, but as one Ukrainian official put it, it has achieved so little “that not everyone even sees it.”
None of this means that Russia can’t eventually conquer Ukraine. If it does, however, it will, in part, be because America’s Putin fans force a cutoff of crucial aid. And if this happens, it will be because the U.S. right can’t stand the idea of a world in which woke doesn’t mean weak and men who pose as tough guys are actually losers.
Thursday, February 23, 2023
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ broken relationship with the mainstream media could get even worse.
At the governor’s urging, Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature is pushing to weaken state laws that have long protected journalists against defamation suits and frivolous lawsuits. The proposal is part DeSantis’ ongoing feud with media outlets like The New York Times, Miami Herald, CNN and The Washington Post
Beyond making it easier to sue journalists, the proposal is also being positioned to spark a larger legal battle with the goal of eventually overturning New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits public officials’ ability to sue publishers for defamation, according to state Rep. Alex Andrade, the Florida Republican sponsoring the bill.
DeSantis has a combative relationship with many media outlets, refusing to conduct interviews with platforms except Fox News and building a communications team that openly brags that its role is to be antagonistic to members of the press. His former press secretary, Christina Pushaw, frequently argued with journalists on Twitter and was once suspended by the social media giant for abusive behavior.
Yet the proposed bill goes further than simply decrying media bias. Free-press advocates call the measure unconstitutional and suggest it could have far-reaching consequences beyond major media outlets.
“I have never seen anything remotely like this legislation,” said Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “I can’t say I have seen every bill ever introduced, but I’d be quite surprised if any state Legislature had seriously considered such a brazen and blatantly unconstitutional attack on speech and press freedoms.”
He added: “This bill is particularly remarkable since its provisions have the vocal support of a governor and likely presidential candidate.”
Andrade’s proposal incorporates many of the elements DeSantis called for during the roundtable, including:
— allowing plaintiffs who sue media outlets for defamation to collect attorneys fees;
— adding a provision to state law specifying that comments made by anonymous sources are presumed false for the purposes of defamation lawsuits;
— lowering the legal threshold for a “public figure” to successfully sue for defamation;
— repealing the “journalist’s privilege” section of state law, which protects journalists from being compelled to do things like reveal the identity of sources in court, for defamation lawsuits.
Stern said 49 states and several appellate circuits recognize a reporter’s privilege against court-compelled disclosure of source material and stressed that it’s essential for people to be able to speak to reporters without risking their jobs or freedoms.
Critics of the bill took issue with the section about attorneys fees, saying it could add a financial incentive to file defamation lawsuits and erode the laws preventing retaliatory lawsuits filed to silence criticism. Florida, like other states, has anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) laws designed to help stop frivolous lawsuits.
“One of my largest concerns with the bill is the rolling back of the anti-SLAPP protection for defamation defendants,” said Adam Schulman, a senior attorney with the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute, which advocates for free markets, free speech and limited governments. ”That’s just moving in the wrong direction.”
He said beyond large media companies, some of which have legal teams, the changes could affect the “ordinary guy” who leaves an “unfavorable Yelp review.”
Stern said the new bill would leave those protections “toothless.” Under most anti-SLAPP laws, individuals can recover attorneys’ fees if they can show they were sued in retaliation for criticizing the government.
“The new bill would change that so that plaintiffs whose lawsuits survive anti-SLAPP motions can recover their attorney’s fees,” he said. “That means the anti-SLAPP law would lose all of its value as a deterrent against powerful people filing abusive lawsuits to silence their critics.”
Be very afraid. DeSantis is extremely dangerous and must be stopped.
Wednesday, February 22, 2023
The G.O.P. response to President Biden’s truthful statement that some Republicans want to sunset Medicare and Social Security has been highly gratifying. In other words, the party has reacted with sheer panic — plus a startling lack of message discipline, with both Mike Pence and Nikki Haley saying that actually, yes, they do want to privatize or “reform” Social Security, which is code for gutting it.
Now Republicans are talking about slashing “woke” programs like Medicaid and food stamps. It’s going to be fun when the party realizes who depends on these programs and how popular Medicaid, in particular, is even among its own voters.
The press’s response to Biden’s remarks has, however, been less gratifying. I’ve seen numerous declarations from mainstream media that of course Medicare and Social Security can’t be sustained in their present form. And not just in the opinion pages . . . . So let me try to set the record straight. Yes, our major social programs are on a trajectory that will cause them to cost more in the future than they do today. But how we deal with that trajectory is a choice, and the solution need not involve benefit cuts.
A good starting point on all these issues is the Congressional Budget Office report on the long-term budget outlook — a report issued every year, with the most recent report released in July. (The numbers were updated this month, but the basic picture hasn’t changed.)
The current report offers a very clear depiction of both the budget challenges facing our major social insurance programs and the sources of those challenges. . . . . But the budget office is not necessarily always right . . . . But the budget office is not necessarily always right . . . .
[T]here’s a widespread narrative to the effect that Medicare and Social Security are unsustainable because they won’t be able to handle the mass retirement of baby boomers. But as you can see right away, only about half the projected rise in spending is the result of population aging. The rest comes from the assumption — and that’s all it is, an assumption — that medical costs will rise faster than gross domestic product.
Before I get there, a word about demography. You might think that the projected aging is all about the baby boomers. But the baby boom is generally considered to have ended in 1964. So the last of us — yes, I’m one of them — will hit 65 in 2029, just six years from now. Most baby boomers are already there.
So why does the C.B.O. project continuing budget pressure from aging? Because it assumes that life expectancy, specifically life expectancy at age 65, will keep rising. That has certainly been true in the past, but given America’s mortality problems, I’m not sure that it’s safe to assume this trend will continue at past rates.
What about “additional cost growth” in health care?
Well, historically health spending has risen faster than G.D.P. — largely, we think, because doctors can now treat many more things than in the past, and this effect has outpaced cost savings from improved technology. But excess cost growth has slowed considerably since around 2010 — perhaps in part because of cost-reduction aspects of the Affordable Care Act. In any case, the leveling off is unmistakable.
This health-cost slowdown has, as it should, affected budget projections. Back during the early 2010s, the heyday of the Very Serious People who insisted that Medicare and Social Security were unsustainable, C.B.O. projections assumed that health spending would grow at historical rates. . . . . But that has changed, a lot. I don’t know if people still repeating the old slogans about the need for entitlement reform realize just how much projections of future spending have come down.
C.B.O. projections now show social insurance spending as a percentage of G.D.P. eventually rising by about 5 points, which is still a lot but not unimaginably large. And here’s the thing: Half of that is still the assumed rise in health care costs. And there are things we can do to control costs that don’t involve cutting off Americans’ benefits. Bear in mind both that U.S. health care is far more expensive than that of any other nation — without delivering better results — and that since 2010 we’ve already done quite a lot to “bend the curve.” It’s not at all hard to imagine that improving the incentives to focus on medically effective care could limit cost growth to well below what the C.B.O. is projecting, even now.
And if we can do that, the rise in entitlement spending over the next three decades might be more like 3 percent of G.D.P. That’s not an inconceivable burden. America has the lowest taxes of any advanced nation; given the political will, of course we could come up with 3 percent more of G.D.P. in revenue.
So no, Social Security and Medicare aren’t inherently unsustainable, doomed by demography. We can keep these programs, which are so deeply embedded in American society, if we want to. Killing them would be a choice.
Tuesday, February 21, 2023
The long-range missiles matter. So do the super-accurate artillery shells, the surface-to-air missiles, and the winter weather gear; the training in the English countryside or the muddy Grafenwöhr maneuver grounds; and the intelligence provided from the eyes in space and the ears on airplanes that circle outside the battle zone.
President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv matters just as much as any of these.
Other heads of government preceded him, earning deserved credit. But it is an altogether different thing when the president of the United States—who is, indeed, the leader of the Free World—shows up. His words mattered. He pledged “our unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” And even more important, that the United States will stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
Symbols matter: a Kennedy or a Reagan at the Berlin Wall, a Churchill with a cigar and a bowler, for that matter a green-clad Zelensky growling, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Simply by taking the hazardous trip to Kyiv, Biden made a strategic move of cardinal importance.
While the president clearly intended to bolster the confidence of Ukraine, and the commitment of ambivalent Europeans and neo-isolationist Americans, his real audiences lay elsewhere, as his remarks about Western strength indicated. Russia has cycled through a series of theories of victory in Ukraine—that Kyiv’s leaders would flee, that Ukraine’s population would not fight, that its army would be crumpled up by a sudden blitz or by grinding assaults. It has been reduced to one last hope: that Vladimir Putin’s will is stronger than Joe Biden’s. And Biden just said, by deed as well as word, “Oh no it’s not.”
This is a gut punch to Russia’s leader. The Russians received word of the trip, we are informed—and presumably the threat, stated or implied, that they would get a violent and overwhelming response if they attempted to interfere with it. For a leader obsessed with strength, like Putin, that is a blow. His own people will quietly or openly ask, “Why could we not prevent this?”
The visual contrast between an American president with his signature aviator sunglasses walking in sunny downtown Kyiv with the pugnacious and eloquent president of Ukraine and a Russian president who has yet to visit the war zone is also striking. Not to mention the difference between an American president who mingles with others, shaking hands, hugging and slapping backs, and a Russian president who keeps his subordinates at a physical distance, and who has to be surrounded by flunkies and actors when he supposedly meets with normal people. No belligerent words from the Kremlin will change those visual images, which will be seen in Russia as well as around the world.
This was not a stunt, but rather an act of statesmanship. Biden’s visit comes at a moment when much hangs in the balance. The Chinese have begun making noises about arming Russia, according to the United States government, which would be a very great change in this war. The Western allies, including the democracies of Asia, have begun mobilizing their military industries. The Russian offensives that were supposed to produce large gains timed to the anniversary of the invasion have instead carpeted the Donbas with the bodies of thousands of men who learned too late that, as one French World War I general put it, “fire kills.” And meanwhile, Ukraine is building up a force to use in its own counteroffensive.
The Russia-Ukraine war is not merely a humanitarian calamity, a monstrous collection of crimes against humanity, a gross violation of solemn agreements and international law. It is also a watershed, in which much will be determined about the future of the international system. It could lead to a very dark place, not different in kind from that of the 1930s and 1940s, if the dictators get their way. But if the liberal democracies unite and display the resolve, enterprise, and military capacity that they have shown before, that outcome can still be avoided.
To that end, nothing matters more than American leadership, the recovery of the prestige and weight that have been wasted or diffused over the past few decades. We are not near the conclusion of this war, and there is much of a tangible nature that needs to be done to bring the conflict closer to its end. Words and gestures are critical, but only when accompanied by deeds. But for now, by taking a bold step, President Biden has made the future for Ukraine, for Europe, and for the cause of freedom under the law a great deal brighter.
Monday, February 20, 2023
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made freedom his calling card, but some conservatives have become skeptical of how liberally the Republican leader is using government power to impose his will.
Among GOP donors, leading conservative voices and even some supporters, there is a growing concern that DeSantis has overstepped in his fight against “wokeness” as he seeks to shore up conservative support ahead of a highly anticipated 2024 campaign for president. Several potential rivals for the GOP nomination have seized on DeSantis’ brash approach and top-heavy governing style to draw sharp contrasts with the popular Republican.
As Florida state lawmakers met earlier this month to hand DeSantis new authority over Disney World – punishment for the company’s opposition to a measure restricting certain classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity – Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire took a shot at the power grab.
“I’m a principled free-market conservative,” said Sununu, who is also weighing a bid for president. “For others out there that think that the government should be penalizing your business because they disagree with you politically, that isn’t very conservative.”
Even among would-be allies, DeSantis has made critics.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a right-of-center First Amendment group that argued for White nationalist Richard Spencer’s right to speak on a Florida campus, has joined DeSantis in opposing diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, programs. Nevertheless, the group has repeatedly criticized Florida’s heavy-handed approach to forcing conservative beliefs on universities and is suing the state over the Stop WOKE Act, a DeSantis-backed measure that legislated how professors teach certain topics.
“You cannot censor your way to freedom of expression,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s legal director. “You cannot trade one orthodoxy for another. What we’ve seen recently in Florida is a troubling willingness to do just that.”
DeSantis, though, has no shown no signs of halting. In a little over a month since he was sworn in for a second term, DeSantis has settled a score with Disney, threatened to end Advanced Placement classes in Florida, took over a small liberal arts college and vowed to put guardrails on how banks lend money. He has punished political enemies, disrupted institutions, consolidated power and imposed his will on businesses – all in the name of stopping “wokeness.”
While the record DeSantis is building is almost sure to play well with many GOP primary voters, a sense of concern is palpable, particularly on matters of race, among some Republicans who are supportive of the governor.
“Being perceived as racially insensitive is not a good place for him to be in the long term,” a Republican supporter of DeSantis said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about an area of rising worry.
The supporter pointed directly to the fight over an Advanced Placement course on African American studies and DeSantis’ quarrel with the College Board, saying the governor could alienate some voters who would otherwise be supportive.
Another Republican fundraiser close to the governor told CNN that there is concern DeSantis is going overboard with “anti-woke stuff” but added: “You’ve gotta win the primary first.”
Frayda Levin, a member of the Club for Growth’s board of directors, said there is great interest in DeSantis but she is increasingly concerned that he has become “too heavy-handed” in his pursuit of hot-button social issues. . . . . “I’m a genuine libertarian; I’m kind of a live-and-let-live kind of girl,” Levin told CNN. She said she has no problem with candidates espousing strongly held personal beliefs on social issues but said she objects to DeSantis “putting the power of his state behind his socially conservative views.”
DeSantis’ pugilistic style has become a frequent topic of debate among free-market conservatives who believe the government shouldn’t interfere with businesses. DeSantis has often intervened if he accuses a business of running afoul of his vision of freedom.
But his approach has often included more government programs (creating an office to pursue voter fraud and a new program to conduct missions to surveil, house and transport migrants from border states to Democratic jurisdictions), more regulation (dictating bank lending practices) or flexing government power in unprecedented manners (ousting an elected state prosecutor).
“I’m troubled by this trend, because what I think the interpretation will be is that this is working,” Katherine Mangu-Ward, the editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine Reason, said in a recent podcast episode centered around DeSantis’ tactics. “DeSantis is raising his profile every single week. He is putting himself in a better position to potentially win the presidency. And he is doing it through indiscriminate use of state power, not only to achieve kind of broader ends, but also just to score points.”
“That is not a good way to run a state. That is not a good way to run a country,” she added.
And even where there is apprehension among allies, DeSantis has not necessarily lost support. Ken Griffin, the billionaire hedge fund owner of Citadel and a major DeSantis donor, said he was “troubled” last year by the governor’s move against Disney.
“I don’t appreciate Gov. DeSantis going after Disney’s tax status,” Griffin said at the time. “It can be portrayed or feel or look like retaliation. And I believe that the people who serve our nation need to rise above these moments in time in their conduct and behavior.”
Sunday, February 19, 2023
At first blush, the clever trap President Joe Biden set for Republicans in his State of the Union Address to get them to repudiate attacks on Social Security and Medicare looked like a one-off exercise. Biden, it appeared, wanted to keep the GOP from using a critical debt-limit bill to get bipartisan cover for hostile measures aimed at the popular retirement programs. But as time goes by, it is becoming clearer that the president had a much bigger goal in mind: regularly reminding voters heading into the 2024 election that only Democrats can be trusted to protect the benefits seniors rely on. Biden is pursuing a play that has frequently worked for Democrats whenever Republicans try to cut, “reform,” or otherwise tamper with Social Security and Medicare, as they are chronically prone to do. It’s a trap Republicans can’t resist stepping into.
Signaling the beginning of a major campaign theme, Biden kept hammering away on the subject of entitlements in the days after the State of the Union, as Axios reported:
He followed up the State of the Union with a speech in Florida on Thursday in which he attacked the GOP’s positions related to prescription drugs, the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security — a laundry list of some of Democrats’ most comfortable policy arenas.” I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security, Medicare. Well let me say this: If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare,” Biden said.
Biden avoided naming names in his State of the Union, referring only to the malign intentions of “some Republicans.” But he and other Democrats aren’t being reticent any more. It’s clear he was alluding, for example, to Florida Senator Rick Scott’s proposal to regularly sunset all federal programs . . . . Scott’s plan was so politically tone-deaf that Republicans themselves, most notably Mitch McConnell, have blasted it as well. But it’s not the only recent GOP attack on retirement programs. Just last year, the Republican Study Committee, a group that includes three-fourths of House Republicans, released a budget proposal that included a hike in the Social Security retirement age, a new means test for benefits, work requirements for some beneficiaries, and the diversion of Social Security funds into private accounts.
There were similar “entitlement reform” initiatives aimed at Medicare in the several Republican budget plans sponsored by Paul Ryan during the tea-party era of the Obama administration . . . . They will come back to haunt the Republicans who endorsed them, including Ron DeSantis, who served in the U.S. House before he was elected governor of Florida. Indeed, if DeSantis runs for president in 2024 as expected, Donald Trump is almost certainly going to go after him on Social Security and Medicare, just like Biden. As the Washington Post observes:
Trump moved to wield the issue as a wedge in the primary, particularly against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, with a video message last month urging Republicans to use negotiations over raising the debt ceiling to cut spending but not “a single penny” from Social Security or Medicare.
Republicans with the “entitlement reform” stain on their records need to appreciate how deadly it has been for leaders in their party to touch what was once known as the “third rail of American politics.” In 2005, fresh from a narrow reelection victory, President George W. Bush unveiled a plan to partially privatize Social Security benefits for new retirees, saying, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” He made the initiative his major domestic-policy priority, hyping it in his State of the Union address. It was a disaster
Going after the big entitlements regardless of political peril was the Great White Whale for conservatives long before W.’s face-plant. As Josh Barro notes, defending Social Security and Medicare was a big part of the formula by which Bill Clinton survived a historic 1994 midterm drubbing, ran circles around Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, and got himself reelected in 1996.
Why do Republicans keep coming back to this poisoned well? There are three basic reasons. First, for a political party whose main preoccupation for decades has been cutting taxes on the wealthy, “financing” tax cuts with “savings” from the single largest segment of the non-defense budget is an inevitable temptation.
Second, Social Security and Medicare are universal programs that benefit all retirees, from the very wealthy to the very poor. From the conservative point of view, these programs embroil a majority of the American people in the seductive wiles of the welfare state.
Third, Social Security and Medicare are the legacy programs of the New Deal and Great Society initiatives, respectively, which are progressive achievements that conservatives feel compelled to unravel whenever and however they can.
Eventually, American conservatives may follow their counterparts in other nations by accepting the basic elements of the modern welfare state once and for all and find other objects for their anti-progressive ire. That’s basically what Donald Trump told them to do in his mold-breaking 2016 campaign, in which he focused on culture-war messages and hostility to Washington rather than going after the federal government’s most popular programs (though once in office, even he couldn’t leave the Medicaid program alone).
Most Republicans, however, can’t stop going after Social Security and Medicare, and Joe Biden has given every indication that he’ll make them pay a price for their stubbornness. If he uses this issue to beat them in 2024, it’s not like they haven’t been warned.