I certainly have not seen eye-to-eye with Bob Shrum on political strategies over the years.  So when we’re both beating the same drum with the same urgency at the same time, it’s somewhat unusual.

But we both agree that President Obama and the Catfood Commission threaten the electoral chances of every Democrat running for office this November.

Shrum has a piece in The Week in which he echoes Ed Kilgore and others Democratic strategists in pointing out that the Democrats don’t have an issue to run on this November.  Like them, he says that saving Social Security could be the issue that saves their seats as well.

But Shrum is willing to utter the uncomfortable truth that Kilgore ignores:  it is deeply, deeply cynical and unconvincing for the Democrats to be out there castigating the GOP for wanting to do the very thing that the White House is privately telling journalists they themselves plan to do by way of the Catfood Commission after the election.

If anyone needs proof of how hollow and pathetic that campaign sounds, watch this completely non-compelling appearance by DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen  on MSNBC.

Cenk Uygur keeps pressing Van Hollen for a commitment to vote against cuts to Social Security if the Catfood Commission recommends doing so. Van Hollen slides around, aggressively attacking the GOP, but also keeping his rhetorical fingers crossed behind his back:

UYGUR: But Congressman, I know exactly where the Republicans stand, but I wasn‘t clear on where you—I didn‘t get that pledge out of you. That‘s what I noticed. I‘ll be honest with you.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, you know what?

UYGUR: So we‘ll see what happens when they actually bring the bill.

VAN HOLLEN: No, wait. No, you‘re asking for a pledge on something that goes way beyond. The vote is not going to just be on Social Security. If there is a vote at all, it‘s going to be on a big, big package. And—

UYGUR: The problem is you guys, you spent the $2.5 trillion. There‘s no reason to touch Social Security at all. It has a surplus. It has a surplus.

VAN HOLLEN: And I agree with you. And I agree with you on that.

That‘s right.

UYGUR: OK. Well, I hope that is—

VAN HOLLEN: But there‘s a debt commission that‘s looking at a much broader area. I hope you wouldn‘t say what you were going to do –

UYGUR: I hope that is shown in the votes. I hope your agreement is shown in the votes.

VAN HOLLEN: I hope you wouldn‘t‘ say what you‘re going to do on something you haven‘t even seen yet.

UYGUR: OK. All right. Let‘s see what happens. I thought we elected a Democratic president.

“I hope you wouldn‘t say what you‘re going to do on something you haven‘t even seen yet?”  Not “over my dead body” or “when hell freezes over?”   That’s the barn-burning conviction to defend Social Security that’s going to save the Democratic Party in November?

I don’t think so.

At the heart of the problem — the Catfood Commission.  Says Shrum:

So why not campaign all out, in O’Neill’s plainspoken way, against a GOP that is disloyal to the most successful—and most popular—social program in American history?

Because Democrats have been disarmed by the President’s deficit reduction commission, which plainly intends to propose Social Security cuts.

Sure, Van Hollen sounds like a weasel. But what can he, and other Democrats, do?   They’ve  got a President who’s out there saying that Social Security needs “tweaks.” Whose Senior White House Aides (4 of them) called David Brooks of the New York Times shortly after the election and told him that Obama is “extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending” (his emphasis, not mine).

Obama bought into the right-wing narrative that Social Security needs to be “saved.” He set up a panel full of Social Security slashers who are telling everyone with a pulse that they intend to raise the retirement age, reduce annual cost of living increases, impose some sort of means testing and add private accounts on top of existing benefits (which is defacto partial privatization).

The very existence of the Catfood Commission forces Democrats on the campaign trail into a position where they either have to engage in double-speak like Van Hollen, run against Obama on the issue, or avoid it altogether.

Shrum says that “what is needed—urgently—is a counterforce”:

If the politicians won’t summon and lead it, the grassroots can and should. There is a coalition, Strengthen Social Security, composed of dozens of organizations from the AFL-CIO to the AARP. But there is no mass movement visible and vocal in congressional districts around the nation – and Norquist shouldn’t be the only one with a pledge. It’s late in the 2010 campaign, but an “Early Bird” movement of seniors, progressives, and working Americans should organize campaign events to demonstrate, demand answers, and hold candidates to account. They could pin Republicans as anti-Social Security. They could make Democrats do what they haven’t yet done for themselves—run as champions of Social Security.

The organizations involved in that coalition could very well put troops on the ground across the country  and make a stink, but they won’t.  Just as it was with HCAN, these big coalitions are only capable of being as aggressive as their weakest link, and most aren’t willing to buck the White House  — and risk their big donors.

The coalition launched a whip campaign on August 16 to extract the pledge from members of Congress that Shrum suggests, but the anemic response highlights several problems:

  1. It’s damn tough to run a whip count.  It’s a full-time job for several people, and you need a big platform to do it successfully.  More importantly, if you’re not willing to make members of Congress uncomfortable and put them on the spot, you shouldn’t even try it because it just makes your cause look feeble when nobody responds.
  2. Nobody trusts the Progressive Caucus to keep their word or put up a fight anyway.  After they  bailed on their pledge to go to the mat on the public option, who would.
  3. It doesn’t matter if every progressive in the House takes this pledge and sticks to it, because it’s all theater.  The only way the Catfood Commission recommendations can pass is if John Boehner gives his stamp of approval, and that’s why he has been making so much noise about what he wants and doesn’t want out of the Commission.

The last point is critical.    There are 255 Democrats in the House, and 178 Republicans.  Sure Lynn Woolsey and Raul Grijalva are out there crowing about the fact that they won’t vote for Social Security cuts.  They won’t have to.

Erskine Bowles was brought on to chair the Catfood Commission to do exactly what he did for Bill Clinton:  come up with a plan for Social Security that will meet with GOP approval, and then pull in enough Blue Dogs/New Dems to get to a 217 majority.

Boehner holds all the cards and he knows it.  His caucus will not split underneath him, especially if the Democrats lose the House and he’s likely to be the next Speaker.

The Blue Dog coalition lists 58 members.  The New Democrats list 69.  You’ve already got Jim Himes palling around with Peterson Institute head David Walker, and even “progressive” Democrat Earl Blumenauer is nodding like a bobblehead at the idea of “stealth benefit cuts” (in the words of Social Security Works’ Alex Lawson).

The Commission will not issue a report that they don’t think they can pass.  Between lame duck members of Congress who lose their seats and do not fear electoral consequences, the Blue Dogs and New Dems who are already in the tank, spineless progressives who roll over for whatever the White House wants and whatever Republicans Boehner decides to deliver, does anyone think Bowles will have any trouble getting to 217 without the progressives?

The fact is, a pledge from Democrats about what they intend to do after the election is meaningless, because the only leverage they have is before the election.

Shrum is looking at Social Security as an electoral issue, and rightly asks, “What does the party stand for if not Social Security?” But the Democratic Party he is talking about doesn’t really exist any more.  The  Blue Dogs and the New Dems, who have no real commitment to preserving Social Security anyway, are also those most likely to loose their seats.    They will be easy pickings for Bowles in the post-election environment.

If Democrats really want to save themselves in November, I agree with Shrum that they must make a stand for Social Security.  But it’s got to be committed and fierce or they should just go home, because they’re not going to inspire anyone if they put up little more than a kabuki effort doomed to failure.

These are the recommendations I’ve made privately to people, so I thought I would offer them publicly:

What A Real Fight to Save Social Security Would Look Like

1) Force a vote on the floor before the election  in the form of a privileged resolution.

As Dave Dayen says, “it would be near-impossible for Democrats to vote against it in large numbers. And the deficit commission would have a hard copy of 230 or so votes against their preferred option.”  If Nancy Pelosi is truly the champion of Social Security she claims to be, and not just a political hack determined to give the Catfood Commission’s recommendations an up or down vote in the lame duck session while laying off responsibility for her decision, she shouldn’t have a problem with that.

2) Demand progressives vote against Pelosi if she allows the Catfood Commission recommendations to come to the floor in the lame duck session.

Of course, Nancy Pelosi is determined to give the Catfood Commission’s recommendations an up or down vote in the lame duck session while laying off responsibility for her decision. That’s why she jammed through a House resolution to that effect.  But the bottom line is that even that one was a “sense of the House” resolution, and it still puts the ultimate decision to do so or not in her hands.

Progressives do not have enough votes to defeat the Catfood Commission’s recommendations, but the percentage of the Democratic caucus they represent will only increase after the November election, and they can certainly keep Pelosi out of a leadership position.  As Jon Walker says, that  gives them the power to keep her from bringing a vote to the floor. It’s just that most members would prefer to engage in a bunch of useless grandstanding than stand up to the Speaker and exercise that power.

3) Whip on removing Alan Simpson from the commission, not some feeble “promise” nobody believes anyway

Alan Simpson is an embarrassment.  He’s also a gift.  His presence on the commission de-legitimizes everything they do. Everyone running for Congress should be asked to call for Simpson’s removal from the Commission. Use his outrageous comments to drag the issue into the news, and most of all,  force the White House to keep defending him.

It’s win/win either way.  The longer he stays on, the more of an albatross he becomes.  If they kick him off, it’ delivers a severe blow to the legitimacy of the Catfood Commission.

And on that note…

4) Challenge the validity of the commission

The commission’s mandate is to deal with the deficit, and not — as Alan Simpson says — to make Social Security “solvent.  Jamie Galbraith’s comments before the commission should be a blueprint for everyone:

GALBRAITH:  I note from Chairman Simpson’s conversation with Alex Lawson that the Commission has taken up the questions of the alleged “insolvency” of the Social Security system and of Medicare. If true, this is far outside any mandate of the Commission. Your mandate is strictly limited to matters relating to the deficit, debt-to-GDP ratio and fiscal stability of the U.S. Government as a whole.

5) Microtarget stakeholders in key districts with online ads

The traditional media aren’t covering the issue because most of the punditocracy agree that it’s a sign of “fiscal responsibility” and “seriousness” to cut Social Security.  That used to be a limiting factor in getting the word out on any issue.  But efficiently targeted online advertising, directed at the demographic who care about the issue, can have a tremendous impact — something that the Scott Brown campaign used to great effect with GoogleAdSense and Facebook ads. (Which is why, I should add, that’s what we’ve been doing.)

6) Get senior citizens out there confronting members of the Catfood Commission

This is perhaps the most important recommendation. Until there are some compelling visual images for TV news to seize upon, they just aren’t going to get excited about this issue. Senior citizens groups with a grassroots presence need to be parking themselves on the floor in front of the closed-door deliberations of the Committee.  They should be dogging the millionaire members who will be voting on their financial futures with their personal stories of what will happen if they don’t get their cost-of-living increases.  People who are approaching retirement age, who are unemployed or underemployed and struggling to get by, need to be confronting them and communicating their very real rage at the very people who seized the trust fund surplus to fund endless wars and bank bailouts, and are now treating them like they’re lazy, greedy pigs.

Groups whose memberships have a stake in this issue should organize sit-ins with cat food, and take lots of pictures. They should be challenging Pete Peterson and David Walker at their public appearances with members of Congress like Jim Himes.

Flip cameras, flip cameras, flip cameras.

***

I applaud Bob Shrum for having the courage to come out and say what everyone else is thinking:  Obama and his Catfood Commission are the biggest threat to the Democratic Party’s ability to retain control of Congress this fall.

Obama forced Democratic members of Congress to vote for a health care bill that many knew would doom their chances of getting re-elected.  He has consistently blamed the country’s problems on “DC politics” and Congress itself, further damaging the ability of incumbents to get re-elected in an already anti-incumbent environment.

Now his senior White House staff are bad-mouthing the very liberal base these members depend on for support,  in a pre-emptive bid to deflect blame for mid-term losses from Obama himself — as if the loss of even more seats is a small price to pay to keep the President’s poll numbers up a  point or two.

Bob Shrum is an establishment party figure willing to speak the hard truth:  the Democrats can only save themselves by running against the plans that Obama and the Catfood Commission have for cutting Social Security benefits.

But Democrats will  need to convince the base that this effort is not just another half-hearted replay of the health care fight. The embarrassing lack of conviction they have shown for ending the war, fighting for a decent health care bill, standing up to the banks or the pharmaceutical industry or any other issue they fought for fiercely when it didn’t matter is just not going to cut it.

If the Democrats want to win their seats back in November, Social Security could very well be the ticket.  But they will need to fight hard and fight smart, and ruffle a whole lot of feathers.  Because until their willingness to shake up the party over this issue becomes the story, nobody is going to care.