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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Richard (RJ) Eskow: The Ides of November


We expected to see an all-out assault on Social Security and progressive taxation in November, and we expected it to come under the banner of “deficit reduction.” That was always the plan: Wait until after the election, when a lame-duck Congress could pass the preferred plan with the least political blowback. Then release a flurry of like-minded proposals and supportive editorials to create the illusion of consensus, capped by a coordinated media blitz to pressure the President and Congress into accepting them.

But even we, battle-hardened as we like to think we are, didn’t expect the assault to be so coordinated, so widespread, or so aggressive. The number of similarly-minded reports released this month is greater than we expected, the ad buys are larger, and the range of ideas is narrower. And more journalists are willing to carry water for this campaign than we expected. All this is being done to serve an anti-government, anti-Social Security, anti-tax agenda whose ideas both unpopular and impractical. Nevertheless, the media’s greeted then with a tidal wave of nearly-unanimous praise (some of of which can even be found on the editorial page.)

As expected, proposals like Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s which reflects most people’s opinions (including most Republicans) are ignored or berated by the media. Schakowsky’s proposal got the brush-off even though she’s a member of the Presidential Deficit Commission. The few journalists who bothered to report on it were typically like Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post, who dismissed her as “one of the most liberal members of Congress” and emphasized that “she described (her proposal as hers alone.”

That’s also true of the proposal from Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who acted as individuals in advancing a proposal too conservative to be passed by their Commission. That’s important: Their proposal did not come from the Commission any more than Schakowsky’s did. Bear that in mind as you read the following headlines:

Panel Seeks Social Security Cuts and Higher Taxes,” New York Times
Debt commission puts out preliminary proposals,” CNN Money
Deficit Commission Proposals Are a Recipe for More Big Government,” US News & World Report
Fiscal Commission Unveils Preliminary Plan,” National Journal
Deficit Panel Pushes Cuts To Social Security,” NPR (National Public Radio)
“Examining The Deficit Commission’s Proposals,” NPR

There’s plenty more where that came from. Note the difference: One proposal, from two individuals known to hold very conservative views about Social Security and taxation, was given massive publicity and frequently mischaracterized as a “panel” or “commission” effort. But poor Jan Schakowsky, accompanied only by the overwhelming support of most Americans, got the shaft.

It’s a somewhat bitter irony that NPR’s coverage of the deficit debate has been among the most biased and inaccurate, since NPR itself could conceivably be eliminated under a deficit reduction plan. And this is the same Lori Montgomery who recently described positions opposed by most Americans as the “middle ground” and blithely dismissed those held by the majority has “extreme,” supported only by the “most liberal” members of Congress at the “far end” of one party.” Her paper is the same Washington Post that cut a deal with far-right billionaire Pete Peterson to produce allegedly unbiased reporting for the paper. Peterson is actively funding many of the efforts and opinions being publicized this month, including a lavish new anti-deficit ad campaign with the extremely lame name, “Owe No.” (Owe, brother …)

All of the proposals and essays in this campaign focus on the same narrow band of options: Far right views about tax breaks for the wealthy, cuts to Social Security, and downsizing government. In the media, these unpopular and untested (at best) ideas are usually labeled “moderate” and “bipartisan,” while the views of the majority and of many experts are dismissed as “extreme.” In the words of the Four Tops, it’s the same old song.

The two deficit reports that did get all widespread favorable publicity were both based on the opinions and ideology of Alice Rivlin, who lends these efforts an air of bipartisanship because of her Clinton White House credentials. If American journalists are the Four Tops in this deficit songfest, Rivlin’s the Holland/Dozier/Holland. (Which makes Pete Peterson Barry Gordy, I guess …)

But they’ve got a problem. Even after the enormous sums expended for ad buys and propaganda tools like the AmericaSpeaks campaign, even after the support Peterson’s foundation led to most of these deficit/anti-Social Security commissions, and even after a coordinated media blitz supported by throngs of journalist enablers, people just don’t like their ideas. As they say in the business world, “the dogs aren’t eating the dog food.” (Or should that be “cat food”?)

The voice of the people has been a source of constant irritation to this crew. “Maybe now that we’ve had an election very focused on the debt and deficit problem, the public will begin to understand how serious this is,” Alice Rivlin said hopefully this month. But a poll cosponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future showed that only 2% of Americans felt that the deficit should be Congress’s first priority. This election was not an endorsement of the ideas or priorities of the Peterson/Rivlin crowd. As the CAF poll showed, even a majority of Tea Partiers don’t like the idea of cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit. And yet another poll, released today, shows that the agenda Rivlin represents remains deeply unpopular.

The conservative Wall Street Journal gave this headline to its report of the poll it conducted with NBC News: “Deficit Proposal Draws Mixed Review.” If “mixed review” is their way of saying “widespread revulsion,” that’s not too far off the mark. While the original questions and raw poll data were not made available, the Journal’s article (which was essentially unbiased, unlike the headline) noted that “roughly 70% were uncomfortable with making cuts to programs such as Medicare, Social Security and defense in order to reduce the deficit, with 27% saying they were comfortable.” That’s more than two-to-one opposition to the ideas now being promoted as moderate and bipartisan.

Here’s a simple visual aid we prepared to put that in perspective:


What do you call a person who speaks on behalf of the people shown in the left-hand column? “Extreme,” “far left,” and “rigid,” for starters. But those who speak on behalf of the people on the right are “moderate,” “bipartisan,” and “centrist.” Of course, the deficit is a real concern. But there are practical solutions that express the opinions of the majority, which you won’t find reflected in any of these celebrated “centrist’ proposals.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that “57% of respondents said they were uncomfortable with gradually raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 over the next 60 years.” It was also noted that “nearly 60% said they were uncomfortable with raising tax revenue through such measures as boosting the gasoline tax, limiting deductions on many home mortgages and altering corporate taxation.”

After an enormous campaign, that’s a big “no sale” from the American people. Difficult decisions will need to be made. But thatl requires a dialog with the public, not an attempt to bum-rush the voters with a heavy-handed sales campaign and a lame duck fait accompli.

Still, the well-funded persuaders haven’t given up hope. The Wall Street Journal article observes that “findings show the national debate is still developing. Asked their views of the draft as a whole, 30% of respondents said they had no opinion.” You can bet that Pete Peterson’s consultants are studying that 30% now, trying to find the best way to sell them on policies that aren’t the best way to cut the deficit and are against their own self-interest.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at “”

Website: Eskow and Associates

From The Huffington Post