One of the great curiosities of U.S. electoral politics the last four or five decades is how the Republican party has remained relevant. Not only relevant, but actually dominant for some of that time, even as their portion of registered voters has declined drastically.
Think of the number of issues on which the Republican Party and most of its candidates are out of step with public opinion. That they have survived is more a result of the broken and dysfunctional messaging of the Democratic Party than it is of any broad substantive appeal. All that may have changed last week with the State of the Union Address.
For decades the official position of the Republican Party has been to privatize Social Security, while some Republican officials have wanted to go even further and dismantle the program altogether. Florida Senator Rick Scott now has a bill to “sunset” social security along with all other federal legislation every five years and force congress to debate whether to renew it.
Republicans label social security an “entitlement”, ignoring the fact that the money in each person’s account resulted from that individual’s labors and contributions. When cornered, most Republicans will say they want to strengthen, not eliminate social security and then will propose privatizing it, which would be a death warrant for a program vital to the economic security of millions of retirees.
Until President Joe Biden laid down the gauntlet in the State of the Union Address and carried the message to several states in the days after, the Democrats never mounted a nationwide effort to make the Republicans pay a political price on the issue. While Republicans chant the mantra that the Democrats are the party of socialism, the Democrats never beat a constant drum tap labeling the Republicans the party that wants to kill social security.
Not until now. Columnists have long called Social Security the “third rail of American Politics”. Now it really is.
The same can be said of Medicare. Republicans opposed it from the very start, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law in 1965. Republican have made unsuccessful attempts to dismantle or cripple the program. But the Democrats never held their feet to the fire on the national stage. As with so many things, Republicans spoke in sound bites while Democrats issued white papers. Not any more. President Biden has placed these two issues side-by-side with reproductive rights as defining the differences between Democrats and Republicans. They can remain the defining issues the rest of this year and all of the 2024 Presidential election year if the State of the Union address represents a real Democratic awakening.
It’s about time.
Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) under President Obama, but not before allowing Republican to demonize it by labeling it Obama-care, a strategy that cost Democrats the majority in congress. To their credit, Democrats eventually recognized voters supported elements of the act and used those parts of the ACA successfully in the 2012 campaign cycle. But after that, they let anti-ACA Republicans off the hook.
That broken Democratic messaging machine has been the bane of Democratic political consultants for what can seem like forever. Part of it is because the national political apparatus is in the hands of consultants based in Washington DC who are driven by polling data and tend to paint with broad brushes and shun the niceties of nuance.
But if President Biden’s State of the Union Address and his travels to carry that message to multiple states in the days following is a sign of what’s ahead, the Republicans ability to survive their out-of-step ideological positions may be fading.
The Democrats have a dizzying assortment of issues by which they can do the same thing the President has done with Social Security and Medicare. With the help of the Supreme Court, Republicans finally became the party against choice in 2020. Their opposition to any student loan forgiveness drove a small increase in turnout among younger voters and gave Democrats strong support among that demographic
Republicans are out-of-step with public opinion on control of drug prices, gun safety and banning assault weapon, increased minimum wages, infrastructure spending, maternity and paternity leave, and a litany of other issues. By focusing on some of these issues and demanding that Republican candidates embrace or disavow their party’s position, Democrats can finally define the difference between the two parties, even for those who still claim there is no difference.