As voters fret the economy, Dems narrow in on new message: Save Social Security, Medicare from GOP
The party says the threat is clear, but a GOP pollster called it a "Hail Mary."
Democrats facing relentless GOP attacks over high inflation appear to be narrowing in on a defense of programs like Social Security and Medicare as they seek -- in the final weeks of the midterm cycle -- to boost their standing with voters who say they are more distressed about the economy.
In recent days, President Joe Biden and top lawmakers on Capitol Hill have boasted that they'll stifle any attempt to cut the programs, seizing on both the rising likelihood that the Republicans wrest back control of at least one chamber of Congress next month and plans from some GOP lawmakers that could curtail the entitlement programs as part of broader government spending changes.
With conservatives favored to retake the House around the same time that the federal government approaches its debt limit, GOP politicians have suggested they will use negotiations on raising that threshold as leverage to extract commensurate cuts.
The party, however, has not yet publicly coalesced around specific requests even though some have also suggested Social Security and Medicare funding be reexamined.
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is expected to serve as speaker if his party wins control of the chamber in the midterms, said he would not "predetermine" anything when recently asked by Punchbowl News if he intended to tie entitlement reform to debt ceiling negotiations, a remark he later sought to downplay.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., this week cast spending negotiations over the debt ceiling as a matter of fiscal responsibility. She told CNN on Sunday: "The federal government just kept getting record revenue year over year and hasn't had to make those tough decisions."
Florida's Rick Scott, the chair of Senate Republicans' campaign arm, also released a plan earlier this year saying all federal funding -- including for entitlements -- should be sunset every five years, which would subject money for the programs to repeated votes in an increasingly polarized Congress.
Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who is running for reelection against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, has likewise called to make Social Security funding discretionary but contended he wanted to fix rather than eliminate the program.
Democrats are pouncing on those remarks and others to pose what they hope will be a clear and cutting contrast with Republicans.
"Republican leaders have made it clear they will crash the economy by putting the United States in default unless we yield to their demand to cut Social Security and Medicare," Biden tweeted Sunday. "And that's more than a promise. It's a threat." The president has been issuing such warnings for months.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., echoed that message on Sunday on CBS News, saying that trading debt ceiling increases for program cuts was tantamount to "blackmail."
"You know what they're talking about? Cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Is that irresponsible? It is absolutely irresponsible," Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., added on CNN. "You don't use the debt ceiling to do that."
Party experts say this focus marks a recognition that warnings about abortion restrictions are no longer the electoral panacea that they appeared to be over the summer as polls continually indicate ceaseless price increases -- and general economic anxiety -- remain top of mind for voters.
"I do think it's something that we should bring up, because the Republicans have outwardly said that they are going to hold our debt ceiling hostage unless we cut Social Security and Medicare. And I think that is something that is super alarming and that voters should know -- that's what they're voting for," said Democratic strategist Irene Lin. "They're actually not voting for getting rid of inflation. They're voting for a party that is coming after their hard-earned benefits."
Strategists said they anticipate such arguments to persist until Election Day, appearing in advertisements and speeches by Biden and others -- tacitly conceding that the party's abortion-centric campaign is insufficient heading into November.
"One, obviously it should be the focus of ads. But two, I think it's very important for the Biden administration to settle down on this message and promote it. The White House is a powerful tool for reaching voters," said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. "I think Democrats see that the economy is the big issue in this campaign. And I do think Democrats are focusing on the Medicare, Social Security argument because it is our best argument to address the economic concerns that are so important to voters."
Among the loudest voices calling for a midterm messaging change was Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats and who lamented in an op-ed this month that "while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered."
"It is baffling to me that when poll after poll has shown inflation clearly to be the priority, especially among voters of color, for Democrats to have obsessed so much on abortion at the expense of people's pocketbooks was a grave mistake," Lin told ABC News.
Still, Democrats are also debating if this new tactic is the right one. Late this summer, operatives optimistically pointed to surprising victories for the pro-abortion access message -- not just in swing-state districts but even in historically red Kansas.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, head of the Democrats' House campaign group, reiterated that in a Sunday appearance on ABC's "This Week" and noted Democratic efforts to cap out-of-pocket costs for some and allowing Medicare to negotiate some drug prices.
Strategists now say that Republicans' own comments on entitlements are natural grounds for attacks, though the broadsides assume a fairly high level of attention to Washington politics from voters.
"I think it should be effective given what Republicans have blatantly said they want to do. But it's a matter of how educated or informed are the voters. I think you have to be following Washington, D.C., machinations kind of closely and to what some of these folks are saying," Lin said. "Trying to make people aware of it can be difficult, but I think it's right that we are raising the alarms on it."
On top of that, Social Security is not appearing in polls as a major concern of young voters far from retirement, strategists acknowledge; and while such entitlement programs have long been untouched, talking about them does not address inflation -- today's top economic worry.
"I think to have a compelling and winning campaign message, Democrats have to run not just on fear of what could happen if Republicans get elected," said Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, a Sanders-aligned advocacy group. "They also have to offer a message of 'vote for us, and we're gonna bring down gas prices. Vote for us, and we're gonna fight like hell to bring back jobs. Vote for us, we're going to fix supply chains.' And that's what's been missing."
"The headwinds are against us, and so any pivot is timely," Geevarghese added of the new messaging. "But do I wish that Democrats had articulated a bold economic agenda that was going to be deflationary at the start of the summer? Yes."
Democratic strategists shared Geevarghese's concern over the timing of this refocus, wondering if ads on Social Security and Medicare have enough time to seep into voters' consciousness in the two weeks before Election Day and with early voting underway in various swing states.
The party has already missed the boat with a swath of voters, with more than 9 million ballots cast from Arizona to Maine.
That's left Republicans crowing that they've won the economic messaging war and similarly scratching their heads over why Democrats didn't hit back sooner.
"The economy, inflation, rising costs: This has been the top issue for voters for months, if not a year," said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard. "Trying to come up with a message now or thematic now on trying to fix inflation, it's like being down a couple of touchdowns and trying to throw a Hail Mary at the end of the game."