Revealingly Misguided Hostile Responses About Republican Dishonesty and Social Security

by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the hazards of writing policy commentary is the hate mail.  Happily, true hate mail remains a rarity in my world, and even trolling is reasonably rare on Dorf on Law.  Occasionally, however, someone decides to send me an off-list email that is ... shall we say ... hostile to some degree.  The best/worst ever of those emails remains one that I never actually finished reading.  The first line was, "Seriously b*tch?!" but not with an asterisk replacing the "i."  I saved that one, even though I never bothered to read the rest of it.

Two years ago, in "Is My Face Red?" I shared with Dorf on Law readers part of an email from an enraged reader who had informed me that my commitment to redistributing wealth and income were "the foundation of atrocities from slavery to the Killing Fields to the Inquisition to the Holocaust."  That was a good day, but what I still needed was someone with a bit more subtlety, someone who could at least pretend that he was not popping a blood vessel while he was scolding me in increasingly unhinged terms for my misinformed views.

That day arrived last week.  An email began with the author telling me how much he liked my March 24 Verdict column: "Social Security Will Be There When Today’s Young People Retire."  How nice!  The problem, it turns out, is that he actually did not like that piece at all.  As I discuss below, I responded indirectly to that reader's concerns in a new Verdict column today: "On Social Security, at the Very Least, the Dishonesty Is All on the Republican Side."

Although my emailer managed to maintain his composure, he became angrier and angrier, and he finally got around to his various accusations.  One of those was that I am supposedly unwilling to criticize Democrats!  (I add the exclamation point to indicate the passion of the emailer in making that accusation.)  It did not really bother me that he was simply wrong about that claim, because he probably has only read one thing that I have ever written, and in that column, I was deeply critical of the Republicans (and proud of it).  In fact, even though I frequently criticize Democrats on Dorf on Law, if he had only read some of my recent Dorf on Law posts, it is true that I have been laying into the Republicans pretty relentlessly. (See esp., "Arguing With People Who Simply Do Not Care About Evidence," and "Arguing With People Who Simply Do Not Care About Logic.")

But what constantly surprises me about this line of argument is that I am apparently supposed to feel some sense of responsibility to say bad things about both parties.  Why should that be so?  If the Republicans are guilty of something that the Democrats are not doing, why pretend otherwise, or why find some other thing that the Democrats are doing just to make everyone feel better?

More to the point, I can imagine the difficulty of being a Republican these days.  For much of such a person's life, it might have been possible to say that both parties were the home bases of politicians who might be politicians first, but at least many of whom were also genuinely engaged in the enterprise of governing.  And Republicans, early in my lifetime, could at a minimum say that their party was not (yet) the home of a gang of unreconstructed segregationists, while also noting that their party's defense of Richard Nixon was balanced by people who ultimately did the right thing.

Things started to get a bit uncomfortable for lifelong Republicans during the Reagan years, as the Southern Strategy realigned the racists into the party of Lincoln, and the religiously motivated zealots (many of whom had been initially drawn to born-again-Christian Jimmy Carter) started to have serious influence in the Republican party.

But it is the emergence of the Gingrich revolution and then the evidence- and logic-free current era that poses a real challenge to lifelong Republicans.  Some conservatives, like Bruce Bartlett, are openly rooting for Donald Trump to win the Republican presidential nomination, so that the party will face total destruction at the polls and be forced to reinvent itself into something that is not a total embarrassment.  I genuinely wish them luck.

I remain fascinated, however, by the Republicans who are absolutely committed to the idea that criticism of their side is completely illegitimate unless it is accompanied by criticism of the other side.  Even more interestingly, my email correspondent informed me that I was supposed to be criticizing Democrats for saying things about Social Security that are in fact true!  As far as I can tell, a "lie" in this context means "anything that Democrats say, the policy implications of which bother me."

Probably the best moment in the email was this: "I notice you seem to have an issue with the Republican rhetoric, but you don’t seem to have an issue with the Democrats who pledge to not cut social security or even talk of expanding it."  Well, as I describe in today's Verdict column, my problem is not ultimately with Republicans' rhetoric, although it is a clever move to try to say that it is all about words and not substance.  (My new friend identified himself as a financial advisor from a major city, so I am assuming that I am not dealing with a fool.)

But setting that aside, here is the real question: Why, oh why, would I "have an issue with the Democrats who pledge to not cut social security or even talk of expanding it"?  Not just as a matter of policy substance, but as a matter of holding myself out as someone who is willing to call a liar a liar, what would I say about Democrats who announce a policy commitment not to cut Social Security and who might "even" expand it?  Gasp!

Here is one of the lies that I was supposed to expose, according my emailer: "'I won’t cut Social Security,' Clinton wrote in an initialed tweet that included a link to her campaign website’s Social Security page. 'As always, I’ll defend it, & I’ll expand it. Enough false innuendos.'"  Let us imagine that I disagreed with Clinton on the substance (even though I agree with her).  Where is the lie?  She says she'll defend it and expand it.  I guess one could say that she will not be able to expand it because Republicans in Congress would prevent that from happening, but that merely means that everything she says would have to be preceded with, "Republicans might succeed in blocking me on this, but ..."

It gets better.  Quoting Nancy Altman, one of the leading experts on Social Security in the country, my correspondent wrote: "'Today, Hillary Clinton clarified her position that she, like Bernie Sanders, will oppose all Social Security benefits cuts, including, of course, raising the retirement age which is an across the board benefit cut,' said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works. 'Expanding, not cutting, Social Security is profoundly wise policy and what an overwhelming majority of Americans want.'"

Again, where is the lie?  Clinton and Sanders truly do oppose benefit cuts, including further increases in the retirement age.  And Altman has a right to her opinion that expanding Social Security is a wise idea (indeed, I share that opinion), and she is certainly right that an overwhelming majority of Americans want that to happen.  Even so, the emailer implored me: "Why aren’t you calling out the democrats for their lies’?" Remember, the title of today's Verdict column is: "On Social Security, at the Very Least, the Dishonesty Is All on the Republican Side."  Why call out lies where there are none?

Finally, however, the substantive point emerged: "[M]y take is that the 'empty suits' are trying to affect change now before it’s too late and the Democrats have their heads buried in the sand about the future liabilities of future benefits.  At some point the liabilities are going to effect the ability of the government to borrow money, and then the real 's---' hits the fan."

One can, indeed, believe that all of that is true.  Believing it, however, is not fact- or logic-based.  The actual evidence and analysis from nonpartisan sources shows, as I have argued many times (including in the offending Verdict column on March 24) that the Social Security system can continue in its current form in perpetuity.  In fact, if the trust fund reaches zero, the system will automatically revert to a form in which it does not require any borrowing on the part of the Treasury.  And if Clinton or Sanders wants to expand it, they will do so in a way that is fully funded.

Even though the correspondent whom I am using as a foil is an educated professional, one might still wonder whether I am being unfair, tarring Republicans with the possibly ill-chosen words of a guy whose knowledge of, say, Roth IRA's and other personal financial matters does not necessarily equip him to think clearly about larger economic issues.  The real objection from this reader, however, is actually the familiar claim from people like House Speaker Paul Ryan that the government is borrowing too much money.  This is not true, but even if it were, it could be addressed by collecting more tax revenue.  In other words, the empty suits running the Republican party talk a lot about the inevitability of future debt crises, but they continually make predictions that turn out to be wrong -- debasing the currency!  hyper-inflation!! -- and they refuse even to consider half of the possible range of policy responses (while continuing to claim falsely that "entitlements" are ruining us).

And in terms of motivated dishonesty and illogic, how is this email worse than Mitch McConnell's invocation of "the Biden Rule" to justify not holding hearings on President Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court?  Not only was there no such rule, but Biden's own words at the time do not support McConnell's conclusion.  Yet all but two Senate Republicans have fallen in line behind that load of nonsense -- not just vowing to vote against Garland, but to refuse to meet with him or to hold hearings.

The common thread here is that an imperfect group of people known as Democrats have been handed an incredible gift.  Their opponents have gone loco, insisting against all evidence and logic, on issue after issue, that up is down and day is night.  Even Republicans' longer-term commitments that pre-date this latest implosion, such as their determination to end Social Security (on which they could make an honest case -- but one that never wins the political debate), have become infected by the new fantasy-based atmosphere.

Bruce Bartlett is right.  Something big has to happen to break that spell.