The Democrats: A party united, somewhat

2013-04-08 14:03

Chicago - While Republicans have received most of the coverage about intra-party fighting since last year's election, Democrats have their own set of disagreeable items that must be dealt with.
Much has been made of the internal struggles of the Republican Party since it received a solid hiding in the 2012 elections. For the first time in what seems like forever, it was clubbed with its own battering ram on cultural issues. In a turgid economy, the incumbent – who favours government spending when the majority of the population does not – won by a significant margin. And in the election where Republicans were supposed to sail to a majority in the Senate, Democrats in fact increased their majority by two seats.
And so started a fight within the Republican establishment and Tea Party wings about how to deal with this, which caused social liberals and moderates within the party to question the motives of the evangelical faction who moves militantly against issues such as gay marriage, abortion and contraception. It set off those who favour having the world’s largest military (the USA spends nearly half of the world’s entire military spending) doing its work all over the place against those who lean toward a far lesser role.  These sorts of Republican arguments have been covered at length since November.
What hasn’t received as much coverage is the conflict going on within the Democratic Party. While Democrats may look more united than Republicans, President Barack Obama’s proposals for cutting the long-term US deficit and debt are deeply unpopular within his own party. The person fighting against this the hardest is independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who has spent the last week railing against what is expected to be the in the president’s budget proposal that is due on Wednesday. (Sanders is an independent but caucuses with Democrats, although he is often to the left of conventional Democratic principles.)
A bit of background: Since Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 mid term elections (and broke Democrats’ grip on the House, the Senate and the presidency) there has been an intense fight over spending, budgets and appropriations, largely centred around the debt the USA holds, and a series of deficits rung up in the last few years. (Admittedly, some part of the debate is arbitrary as the US hardly ever runs at a budget surplus – in fact it has happened only a handful of times since World War II.

The big expenses

More than once, Obama and Republican leadership have attempted to find a “grand bargain” to reduce the debt which will comprehensively reorganise government spending to reduce the $16-trillion-odd pile, but the parties are yet to find common ground on a long-term deal. In a nutshell Republicans want deficit reduction solely through cutting government spending, while Democrats are prepared to cut some spending, but want more revenues (ie taxes) to make up for it.
This has led to focus on the US government’s biggest expenses: The military, Social Security and Medicare (a health insurance programme for those over the age of 65). Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has already started the process of slashing the world’s largest military budget, although this has to be done carefully because a) the Department of Defence is a massive employer and b) there is possibly no nation more concerned with national security, which means this part of the budget is electorally significant.
This leaves us with Social Security and Medicare, both of which are the only two parts of the US budget that are bigger portions than the defence budget. And two of Obama’s significant negotiating tactics are wildly unpopular within his own party.
Social Security payments logically go up with inflation – the consumer price index (CPI) – but Obama is prepared to cede ground to Republicans on this, and use what is called chained CPI, which is a different way of calculating inflation, but would show lower increases. In essence, this would cut Social Security by adjusting payments by the chained CPI inflation rate, not generally accepted CPI.

Expectedly, this has gone down like an unwanted pimple within the left-leaning political spectrum. The aforementioned Senator Sanders said on a statement on Friday, “I am terribly disappointed and will do everything in my power to block President Obama’s proposal to cut benefits for Social Security recipients through a chained consumer price index.” Sanders actually submitted an amendment to a spending resolution last month preventing chained CPI from being a part of it, which was adopted by a large majority of the upper chamber.

Potential for 'war'

The AFL-CIO, America’s largest union collective that represents over 12 million workers and is a significant Democratic Party supporter, said on Saturday, “We continued to reject chained CPI…” Influential interest group American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) said, “Reducing the cost-of-living adjustment in this manner would harm seniors.” Democrat Senator from Oregon, Jeff Merkely, said in December (when these ideas were floated around to solve the “fiscal cliff” crisis), “The formula we use to adjust cost-of-living changes for seniors needs to reflect the real costs they face, not the budgetary fantasies of Washington.” House Democrats are also stirring. It is not going to be pretty.
Regarding Medicare, there are two significant things the president could suggest: Raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 – a policy which has absolutely no chance of passing any legislative body due to rank unpopularity – or asking high-income individuals who are eligible to pay more into the programme. The latter is also deplored among many members of both parties (especially Democrats) for many reasons, including the fact that some people lived frugally to save up for retirement but could be penalised for sitting upon a pretty nest egg.
This situation essentially pits the most high-profile Democrat in the country against members of his own party, relating to signature legislation Democrats have in their historical trophy cabinet – Social Security was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt and Medicare by President Lyndon Johnson. Any Democrat who votes for any bill containing chained CPI, or structural changes to the user side of Medicare, will likely face a primary opponent before the next elections in 2014, an opponent who will have a significant weapon with which to beat them.
There is indeed the potential for a full on civil war within the Republican Party before the next elections. But it most certainly isn’t exclusive to them.