Biden's State of the Union Was a Feisty Return to '90s Politics. Republicans Should Be Afraid.
Whining about 'Mediscare' did not do Bob Dole a lot of good in 1996.
One of the implicit promises of the Biden presidential campaign was to turn back the political clock to a more normal time, before Donald Trump made everything weird. COVID delayed that process, but I think we’re finally getting there, and last night’s State of the Union address was a demonstration of that. What I did not anticipate was how far back we would go.
Biden’s speech was right out of the ‘90s in a way that I think was very politically savvy for the president and his team, and it previews how they are likely to run a re-election campaign against Gov. Ron DeSantis, if he is the Republican nominee.
Here’s what was so ‘90s about Biden’s speech.
After Clinton stepped on a rake with his health care plan and lost both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, he got himself to an eight-point re-election victory 1996 by running on two key themes:
Republicans are right-wing lunatics who want to cut your Social Security and Medicare, and I will never let them do that.
Here’s a bunch of popular, small-bore ideas that I can work to implement on a bipartisan basis with those Republican lunatics.
Biden’s speech yesterday had a lot from column 1 and a lot from column 2. I’m going to save the bipartisanship talk for tomorrow’s newsletter. Today, let’s talk about entitlements, and Biden’s effective and Clintonesque sowing of fear, uncertainty and doubt about Republicans’ stewardship of popular benefit programs.
Biden noted that while many Republicans say they are officially committed to protecting Social Security and Medicare, there are some who have been talking about undermining the programs. Republicans booed and jeered that this was a lie — ensuring that the accusation would be at the center of today’s news coverage of the speech.
And today, as Biden has been out campaigning, he read from a brochure from last cycle’s NRSC chair, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, about Scott’s plan to sunset all government programs — including Social Security and Medicare — every five years.1
As Biden noted, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has gone further, saying he wants to turn all government spending into discretionary spending that must be renewed annually.
But the most damaging shoe to drop for Republicans on these issues hasn’t even been discussed much this week.
Gov. DeSantis, who at this point is edging toward being their presumptive nominee, voted repeatedly as a member of Congress for budget proposals built around slashing Social Security and Medicare. In 2013 and 2014, he voted to replace then-Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget-cutting proposals with more radical budget-cutting proposals. The 2013 proposal would have raised the retirement ages for both Social Security and Medicare to 70, cut the growth rate of Social Security benefits, and changed Medicare from a program that guarantees access to health insurance into one that would have provided a stipend payment that would not, over time, have necessarily kept pace with the actual cost to buy health insurance.
Last night’s speech was a preview of the likely Biden attacks on DeSantis in a 2024 campaign: These guys say they won’t touch your Social Security or Medicare, but some of them want to, their Senate campaign chair put out a plan that would cause the program to expire after five years, and the guy they want to make president voted over and over again when he was in Congress to slash these programs you care about. By the way, they all keep voting to gut Medicaid — that’s not even controversial in the Republican Party. Democrats are the only party you can trust to protect these programs.
The entitlement issue will be Republicans’ version of “Defund the Police”: the political problem is not any particular policy proposal the party will be running on, but the impression the party has created that it is unreliable because it is in thrall to radical interests invested in unpopular ideas about cutting Social Security and Medicare.2
We saw this play before in the ‘90s.
Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 and immediately set about trying to force Bill Clinton to cut the budget on their terms. Republicans’ plan — which they tried and failed to tie to a needed debt-limit increase — included increases in Medicare premiums and co-payments. Clinton strongly opposed this plan and harped relentlessly in attack ads on Republicans’ desire to shift health care costs toward Medicare beneficiaries, noting for good measure that Republican nominee Bob Dole was so old he had been in Congress to vote on whether to establish the Medicare program, and he had voted no.
Republicans’ response to this line of attack was to whine. The New York Times reported in September 1996:
''Instead of working with Republicans and with the Democrats to try to secure, preserve and strengthen Medicare, the President chose to engage in a campaign to scare American seniors,'' Mr. Dole told a half-filled arena in West Palm Beach. ''We call it Mediscare! Mediscare! Mediscare! All the ads you see in Florida, all the ads you see in Florida, are negative Mediscare ads!''
Without directly accusing Mr. Clinton of lying, Mr. Dole implored, ''Mr. President, why don't you be honest with Florida seniors and other seniors across America?'' He went on: ''Why don't you tell the truth, Mr. President? And once he does that, we're going to wipe him out in Florida and all across America.''
This got Dole about as far as “stop lying about my record” got him in the 1988 primary campaign. Clinton went on to win Florida by 6 points, the largest margin for a Democrat in the state since Harry Truman in 1948.
I wrote a few weeks back that one reason Democrats were likely reluctant to use up a lot of political capital and congressional floor time to take the debt limit off the table before they lost control of Congress is that they relish a fight with Republicans over the budget. Do Republicans have spending-cut demands they wish to tie to a debt ceiling increase? Democrats would like them to make those demands as loudly and insistently as possible, in much the same way that Rick Scott has been assisting Democrats by repeatedly and indignantly describing his plan to sunset all laws, including Social Security, after five years.3
After all, the 1995-6 budget standoff didn’t just lead to a debt ceiling increase tied to pretty modest policy concessions Bill Clinton could easily live with. It also led to a lot of public attention to an unpopular Republican entitlements agenda that enabled Clinton to cruise to re-election by tying Dole to extreme economic policy ideas, in some cases proposed not by him but by others in his party.
Here’s a partial transcript of one attack ad from the 1996 campaign:
MALE NARRATOR: Dole's risky economic scheme.
MALE NARRATOR: He still won't tell us how he'll pay for it all.
[TEXT". . .deficit to balloon. . ."-Business Week 8/12/96]
MALE NARRATOR: Business Week says it could balloon deficits. Deficits, higher interest rates, slower growth. We've seen that before.
MALE NARRATOR: Dole's campaign co-chair, Senator D'Amato, says he'd look at raising Medicare premiums to help pay for Dole's promises.
[TEXT: Raise Medicare Premiums]
MALE NARRATOR: Imagine what Newt Gingrich will go after.
Do you see how easily that message will be repurposed in 2024? Just swap in “DeSantis” for “Dole,” “Scott” for “D’Amato,” and any number of right-wing attention-whores in the Republican conference for “Gingrich.” Add a mention or two of DeSantis’s votes for budgets too right-wing even for Paul Ryan, and there you have it: an updated version of Mediscare, fresh for 2024.
Who that should really scare is Republicans.
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This plan — which also initially called for raising taxes on nearly half of American families, before Scott walked that idea back — has to drive other Republicans in Congress crazy, especially given the way Scott explicitly tried to frame it as a plan for the party, not just his own unpopular ideas. I’m not saying Rick Scott is a Democratic plant in the Senate Republican Caucus, but I would say Rick Scott is doing what a Democratic plant in the Senate Republican Caucus would do.
We may even see some “strange new respect” for Donald Trump, the moderate former Republican president who, unlike this right-wing maniac DeSantis, understood how important these benefit programs are (except Medicaid).
Again, I am not saying Rick Scott is a Democratic plant.