GOP Trial Balloon Called “Trojan Horse”

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 16, 2017

In previous years, the GOP leadership, now controlling both chambers of Congress, pushed legislative proposals to eliminate Social Security and Medicare by privatizing these programs. These attempts were clearly visible for all to see. But, we are in new political times with a GOP White House seeking the destruction of these programs, too, but as some say through the back door.

According to an Associated Press story, published on April 10, 2017, as the Trump Administration begins to learn from its failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, tax code reform is now on its agenda. One trial balloon, being floated by a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the Trump Administration, would eliminate the mandated payroll tax that all American workers pay to fund Social Security and Medicare.

“This approach would give a worker earning $60,000 a year an additional $3,720 in take-home pay, a possible win that lawmakers could highlight back in their districts even though it would involve changing the funding mechanism for Social Security, according to a lobbyist, who asked for anonymity to discuss the proposal without disrupting early negotiations,” says Writers Josh Boak and Stephen Ohlemacher in their Associated Press story.

Currently, about 163 million American workers pay Social Security taxes and 59 million retired and/or disabled persons collect monthly benefits. About one family in four receive income from Social Security. The nation’s social insurance and welfare program is a “pay-as-you-go-program.” Today’s workers support the program by paying their taxes into the program and the money flows back out to the program’s current beneficiaries.

GOP Stealth Attack on Social Security

Responding to the GOP trial balloon, in her blog post published last Tuesday on the Huffington Post, a politically liberal American online news web site, Contributor Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works called the GOP trial balloon “a Trojan horse”, noting that “It appears to be a gift, in the form of middle class tax relief, but would, if enacted, lead to the destruction of working Americans’ fundamental economic security.”

If President Trump proposes “the Trojan horse, it would be the newest shot in the ongoing Republican war against Social Security. That war has failed so far. The American people overwhelmingly support Social Security because they appreciate that it provides working families with basic economic security when wages are lost as the result of death, disability, or old age. And it does so extremely efficiently, securely, fairly, and universally,” says Altman in her April 11, 2017 blog post.

According to Altman’s blog posting, after Trump and GOP lawmaker have suffered legislative defeats in their “frontal attacks” against Social Security to eliminate the programs “it appears they are contemplating a “stealth attack instead.” She noted, “In the 1980s, Republicans, who had long tried but failed to cut government programs directly, discovered a new tactic. They realized that they could undermine government and eventually force cuts to spending by cutting taxes and, in their words, starve the beast. Now, Trump is making plans to use that same tactic against Social Security.”

“Not only would the Trump proposal starve Social Security of dedicated revenue, it would ultimately destroy it. Social Security is not a government handout. It is wage insurance that the American people earn, as part of their compensation, and, indeed, pay for with deductions from their pay,” observed Altman.

Altman warns that GOP lobbyist’s proposal to eliminate the payroll tax to fund Social Security is consistent with Trump’s previous actions. “No one should be fooled by Trump’s campaign promise not to cut Social Security. Before he became a candidate, he called it a Ponzi scheme and advocated privatizing it. He chose, as his vice president, Mike Pence, who complained that the Bush privatization proposal didn’t go far enough, fast enough. As President, he has chosen a staunch opponent of Social Security, Mick Muvaney, as his budget director, and another staunch opponent, Tom Price, as Secretary of Health and Human Services (one of Social Security’s trustees.), she said.

In an email urging recipients to sign a petition to protect Social Security’s funding [the payroll tax], Michael Phelan, Deputy Director of Social Security Works noted, “For decades, Republicans in Washington and Wall Street bankers have told us that Social Security is going broke―even though Social Security has a $2.8 trillion surplus and can pay out 100% of benefits for the next 17 years and over 75% of benefits owed after that.” He warns the “Republican’s tax plans might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. By starving Social Security of funding, they could finally receive their wish―replacing Social Security’s guaranteed benefit with unstable Wall Street retirement plans.”

The “Great Wisdom” of a Payroll Contribution Tax

Max Richtman, President & CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, says, “It’s no surprise that the GOP lobbyist who suggested this dangerous idea and remained anonymous. After all, who would want to own up to an idea that would trigger the collapse of the most successful government program in U.S. history?”

Richtman adds, “Peddling this kind of scheme reminds me of President George W. Bush’s 2005 privatization proposal. Only in this case, the risk factor shifts from the uncertainty of Wall Street to benefit cuts that will almost certainly occur when Social Security is forced to compete for government funding with other discretionary programs. There was great wisdom in President Roosevelt’s plan for funding Social Security through a dedicated payroll tax. As President Roosevelt said, ‘We put those payroll contributions there to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions…No damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, sees an uphill battle to formalize the tax policy to eliminate the payroll contribution to fund Social Security. “I don’t think Trump will be able to eliminate or reduce the Social Security tax because of its dire consequences for the program itself. The program is very popular with the general public and many recipients count it as their sole support. Republicans will get killed if they try to do this. It is not a viable option now or anytime in the near future.”

When Trump releases his tax code reform proposal, aging advocates must remember that the devil is in the details. Read the proposal thoroughly with a fine-tooth comb

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Gubernatorial Candidates Go Negative to Get Votes

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 22, 2014

With less than three weeks before the September 9th Democratic primary, gubernatorial candidates are working overtime to get their political message out by mailed campaign literature and bombarding the airways with their 30 second commercials and at debates.

As primary day quickly approaches, political new comer Clay Pell is staying on message in his campaign literature and television ads, claiming he has a “real plan” to fix Rhode Island’s problems, even claiming that he will bring a “real plan” and a “fresh perspective” to the Governor’s Office if he is elected. On the other hand, Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo duke it out to take the lead. Taveras even takes pop shots at Pell as more voters begin to support him.

From the start, Businessman Ken Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung took off their gloves and began negatively blasting teach other in their campaign literature, TV ads and even at debates. Block was not a real Republican who had voted for Democratic President Barack Obama, he even supported his new ObamaCare program. On the other hand, Block went after Fung’s handling of Cranston’s ticketgate, calling him a political insider.

Yes, as my good friend long-time Pawtucket resident Jon Anderson says, “it’s the silly season of politics.” Like it or not, negative campaigns are here to stay and they do work, say political pundits

Poll Numbers Shifting

Just as summer began, Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates began to get negative and the numbers began to shift.

According to an exclusive WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll, released two days ago, of 503 likely Rhode Island Democratic primary voters, Raimondo takes the lead at 32%, Taveras drops to 27%. Pell is closing in at 26%, the poll shows, conducted by Joe Fleming, of Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, Rhode Island. One percent of the voters give Todd Giroux their support. Only 13% of the respondents remain undecided.

Last May, a previous WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll showed a politically-unknown Pell had support of 12% of those polled. Huge infusions of his personal wealth on TV ad purchase and campaign outreach has ratcheted up his visibility. At that time, Taveras was in the lead with 33%, Raimondo at 29%. With a larger campaign war chest than the Mayor, she was able to chip away at his lead by focusing the voters on his City’s economic woes and spike in crime.

As to the Republican primary race, the universe of Republican voters is so small there are no public polls, says Chairman Mark Smiley, Rhode Island Republican Party. He notes that the Fung and Block campaigns are doing their own internal polling.

Negative Campaigning Works…

Negative campaigning works, says Wendy Schiller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University. In his book, Defense of Negativity, Vanderbilt Professor John Greer found that “not only do negative ads work to undermine the opponent, they also convey information about candidates,” notes Schiller.

“Even when an ad is completely negative, it almost always contains some element of truth to it about the opponent’s record or positions, adds Schiller, a frequent guest of Rhode Island PBS’s “A Lively Experiment.”

Schiller gives her assessment of the Block-Fung race. “Because Ken Block was formerly a moderate, he has the most pressure to jump into his race with energy and aggression and undermine the perceived front runner Mayor Allan Fung,” she says, noting that he may have well been successful in doing that at a time when the police scandal in Cranston was unfolding and now more recently, with the filming of an expensive ad in Ohio instead of being created in Rhode Island

“Fung has fought back by criticizing Blocks proposal’s and his lack of elected experience, but his first negative ad on Blockheads was perceived to insult Block supporters more than Block himself, so they pulled it, notes Schiller.

As to the Taveras-Raimondo contest, Schiller believes the Mayor had to go negative against his opponent because she was criticizing him for higher taxes and the rising crime rate in Providence, noting that of these candidates went negative on Pell’s inexperience. It was a mistake because they did not want to give him status as a contender but it allowed him to shape his own reputation among voters with unchallenged TV ads, she says.

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Schiller says that negative TV ads can backfire. “I think overly negative – or too much distortion of a record – can backfire more in Rhode Island because we are such a small state that most folks can spot an exaggeration when they see it,” she observes.

“We are already seeing Taveras go more negative on both Raimondo and Pell so expect to continue [in the upcoming weeks before the primary], adds Schiller. She predicts that the General Treasurer will “likely stay positive in effort to pull a few more voters from the undecided camps into her vote column. She says that Pell has responded to Taveras negative ads in a limited way, and expects him to stay above the negative fray in hopes of pulling votes from the other two Democratic candidates.

Can a political candidate win an election by not going negative? It depends on where you are in your campaign, says Schiller. For instance, a while back Raimondo went negative on Taveras, but only continues to do so in debates, not so much on TV ads. Pell thinks a positive strategy is also a winning strategy while Taveras is now on the attack. “We will just have to wait and see on primary night who wins,” she says.

Watching the Political Tumble from the Side Lines

From inside the Beltway, Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, watches his former state’s gubernatorial races and gives this columnist his observations.

“The Ocean State’s GOP primary turned negative early in the campaign because it is only a two-person race. In this situation, once one candidate goes negative, the other person has to defend himself and go on the attack too,” says West, a former Brown University professor and a prominent Rhode Island political commentator, noting the complexity of negative advertising in three-person races. “If two candidates go negative, that sometimes benefits the third candidate who has stuck with a positive message,” he says.

West speculates as to Taveras’ use of negative TV ads. “Taveras has a problem on both flanks. Raimondo is more moderate while Pell is more progressive. So the Mayor went negative to prevent vote erosion on both sides of the political spectrum. His strategy hasn’t bought him much support and he has lost ground to Pell in the most recent poll, he says.

West agrees with Schiller that negative ads can backfire. “Negative ads can backfire if the candidate is seen as mean-spirited and overly negative. That can redound to the benefit of the candidate who has stayed positive,” he adds.

Look for more nasty TV ads in the upcoming weeks, says West. You often see more negativity as you get closer to election day. With the margin of victory very close among the Democratic candidates, that primary runs the risk of turning into a slugfest in its closing days,” he says.

Finally, West says that positive ads might push a political candidate to victory. “Candidates can win by staying positive in a three-way race. Lack of negativity becomes a distinguishing factor with the other two candidates, he notes.

Your Vote Counts

Historically, older voters from across the country have played a major role in electing political candidates because they consistently-voted in larger percentages than other age groups. The political fate of Rhode Island’s statewide and congressional elections and ballot initiatives may well rest on the shoulders of aging baby boomers and senior voters.

By now, the Ocean State’s political candidates have mailed campaign literature, debated, attended debates and gatherings, hoping to effectively deliver their political messages and ultimately influence their vote.

While negative ads may sway voters, take control of who you will vote for at the upcoming primary. Spend the next three weeks to read between the lines of campaign literature and negative ads, learning more about a candidate’s background and issues. You must separate political rhetoric and negative innuendoes from the substance of issues. Put time into determining who can best represent your interests.

If political candidates do not know the power of the educated voters, hopefully they will after the polls close at 8:00 p.m. on September 9th.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com