There is nothing like a big, macho Republican demanding that the government cut the meager benefits of the old and sick to get the Washington press corps stimulated, as Chris Christie proved again last week. The political media couldn't find enough superlatives to describe him. They excitedly said his plan was "provocative, and risky", that he was smartly positioning himself as "one guy willing to talk straight about the government's unsustainable finances" --- which was all part of the narrative of him being a hero who is "authentic and brave and tells it like it is." What a man.
This classic beltway assumption -- that cutting the safety net is the very essence of political courage and ideological integrity -- goes all the way back to the early days of Ronald Reagan, when he was making stuff up about Social Security going broke in 1964. The trend continued well into the '90s and '00s, culminating with the press's cheerleading for George W. Bush's ambitious attempt to slash the program in 2005. But it took on even more of a febrile quality when, early in his term, Barack Obama mused about hopes for a Grand Bargain which included cuts to "entitlements." There had always been Democrats who backed the idea, but it came as a happy surprise to the political establishment that one who was portrayed as being very liberal would join the chorus.
These well-off beltway celebrities couldn't have been more anxious to see that average Americans, in the midst of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, should suck it up and sacrifice for the common good. Recall the stern warnings of economic expert and renowned salt-of-the-earth everyman Luke Russert, in the early stages of his MSNBC career, holding forth about the "problem":
If you look at the backdrop, Dylan, just look at the stats. Federal revenue now is at its lowest level since 1950. If you extend the Bush tax cuts the way the Republicans want, you get $3.8 trillion added to the deficits. If you add them the way Democrats want, you get $3 trillion added over the next three years. If you don’t do anything to Medicare or Medicaid or social security, those programs will not be solvent.
Both parties don’t want to tell the American people it’s time to drink their tough medicine.
Both parties are going to try to take 2012 as the avenue to have this debate further. But as this debate goes on and on and on, the real difficult decisions, the real ideas of how are we going to cut this deficit, they go unanswered.
All so folks can can get re-elected, continue to get their $174,000 salaries, and the beat goes on and on. The special interests get rich, the parties can argue and argue and argue.
Russert had done a lot of hardscrabble living in his 25 years, so he knew from tough medicine. (St. Albans prep is known as a school of hard knocks, after all.) But in fairness, Russert was just parroting what all the rest of the wealthy pundits -- who will not suffer even the slightest bit from Social Security cuts -- have been saying for decades: The American people are small children who don't understand that they must "drink their medicine" and agree to live in even worse penury in their old age than they already do now. (In fairness, Russert was also scolding politicians, so it's not as if he wasn't being fair and balanced. Obviously, it's equally painful for well-off people to pay some extra taxes as it is for the elderly poor to be forced to eat cat food for lack of funds.)
So, Chris Christie is probably very smart to be playing to the beltway crowd on this one. There's nothing they love more than to see some loudmouth bully "tell it like it is" to most vulnerable people in our society. And, needless to say, he won't be alone. The GOP was stung by Bush's failure to cut the programs, and the Tea Party has not been willing to let them try it again as long as a Democrat is proposing it. Most of the other 2016 candidates are being careful, but it's unlikely they won't go along with a program like Paul Ryan's latest, which is nothing more than warmed-over privatization. It's in the Republican DNA.
So what to make of Mike Huckabee coming out swinging on this issue on Friday and taking Christie and the others to task in no uncertain terms?
"I don't know why Republicans want to insult Americans by pretending they don't understand what their Social Security program and Medicare program is," Huckabee said in response to a question about Christie's proposal to gradually raise the retirement age and implement a means test.
Huckabee said his response to such proposals is "not just no, it's you-know-what no."
"I'm not being just specifically critical of Christie but that's not a reform," he said. "That's not some kind of proposal that Republicans need to embrace because what we are really embracing at that point is we are embracing a government that lied to its people--that took money from its people under one pretense and then took it away at the time when they started wanting to actually get what they have paid for all these years."
He added that he had no intention of endorsing Paul Ryan's plan either. This is very unusual for a Republican. They may not want to take that vote for cutting the program, especially since their base is very much among those who benefit from it, but they are never this unequivocal about it. It's extremely rare for them not to issue any disclaimer about The Deficit and The Government Spending Too Much, etc, etc. To come right out and take the retirement age and means testing off the table -- that actually is the "bold" and "authentic" breaking-with-conventional-
Huckabee has always been interesting in this way. Of all the declared and undeclared candidates he's the one with the real populist record. Yes, he is a hardcore social conservative and a very hawkish, pro-military right-winger. But on economics he's different. As Governor of Arkansas, he did something that the Koch Brothers and Rand Paul would most definitely not approve of: He raised taxes. (Granted, they were regressive sales and gasoline taxes, but still.) He's extremely hostile to free-trade agreements and like the Tea Party he doesn't seem to care for government bailouts for Wall Street and Big Business. He has heretically accused industries of "price-gouging" which is something the right normally glorifies as "smart business." According to the Economist, the Club for Growth was apoplectic about him back in 2008, saying that "nominating him would be 'an abject rejection' of the free-market, limited-government principles for which the Republican Party stands. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, gave him a 'D' grade for fiscal policy."
None of this makes him a progressive, of course. He's as conservative as they come. But he's always been a populist conservative and that makes him different than the rest of this big field of Republican candidates. If 2016 is a populist moment, as many Democrats believe it is, Huckabee may be the one Republican candidate who can ride that zeitgeist along with them. His main problem (aside from the Big Money Donors shunning him) will be the conservative and mainstream media, both of which characterize this sort of populism as the worst kind of pandering if not an outright betrayal. On the other hand perhaps he, like many in the Democratic Party, are belatedly recognizing that it's highly unlikely average voters appreciate being lectured about "sacrifice" by people who make more money in a year than many of them will make in their whole lives. Say what you will about Mike Huckabee (and there's plenty to say) but he's one of the very few Republicans who seems to understand that.