Testing the limits of grabbing the third rail

TESTING THE LIMITS OF GRABBING THE THIRD RAIL…. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower (R) wrote a letter to his brother. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” Ike said. The president acknowledged in the letter that there are some who advocate such nonsense, but added, “Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Eisenhower’s Republican Party has come a long way in the last half-century, and what was once considered fringe stupidity has become far more common. And with Social Security celebrating its 75th anniversary, there’s a renewed effort to shine a light on the GOP’s willingness to gut this bedrock American institution, if not eliminate it altogether.

The Republican push is not without some precedent. In 1936, repealing Social Security was part of the GOP platform. Seven decades later, George W. Bush launched a ridiculous privatization scheme that the nation strongly rejected, and which congressional Republicans want to great lengths to avoid.

This year, opposition to Social Security throughout the Republican Party is at its strongest, most pervasive levels since the mid-’30s. With that in mind, the DNC released this web video overnight, using the anniversary to remind folks which party supports Social Security, and which doesn’t.

“From Sharron Angle to Rand Paul and from Paul Ryan to John Boehner — Republicans are talking about either phasing out Social Security entirely or making such radical changes to it as to dismantle and make it unrecognizable to the successful program it has been for 75 years,” DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse said.

An initiative like this one serves a few different purposes. The first is pretty basic — Social Security is popular, and Republican plans to undermine it aren’t. The second has to do with demographics — seniors tend to vote in large numbers; they’re very big fans of Social Security; and they’re not especially happy with Democrats right now. A push like this one may hope to give Dems a boost with a key age group.

But in the bigger picture, I think there’s a more subtle point, and it gets back to the Eisenhower quote. The American mainstream embraces Social Security as a pillar of American life. It’s been one of the most, if not the most, successful domestic government program in our nation’s history. The country tends to look at those who would undermine this institution as being radical, or in Ike’s word, stupid.

And yet, in 2010, leading GOP voices, positions of power and influence, haven’t been particularly shy about their desire to privatize Social Security, cut benefits, or pursue the wholesale elimination of the program.

If the goal is to characterize Republicans as extremists, this effort seems to fit the bill.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.