WASHINGTON - "The party that aggressively defends Social Security and Medicare will win the next election!" With that forecast, Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, opened a workshop during the "Take Back the American Dream" conference here in the nation's capital, Oct. 3-5.
Hickey pointed out that a grassroots movement in 2005 defeated President George W. Bush's drive to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare. It was a turning point in the people's struggle against the corporate ultra-right, Hickey said.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., agreed, calling that particular effort to save Social Security "magnificent" and describing it as an example of an "inside-outside" fightback, with progressives in Congress and grassroots people outside joining forces to defeat the Republican scheme.
The nation is now at a "crossroads," she added, listing what she sees as the key struggles in the countdown to the 2012 elections: Winning approval of President Obama's $450 billion jobs plan; pressuring the so-called "Supercommittee" (assigned to come up with $1.5 trillion in deficit cuts by Nov. 15) to protect the middle class instead of the wealthy: and restoring fair taxes on corporations and the rich.
Schakowsky warned that the Republican right won majority control of the House in the 2010 elections by hoodwinking many voters, especially senior citizens, with mendacious TV ads telling such lies as "Obamacare cut Medicare by half a billion dollars."
The GOP targeted Obama's plan to phase out Medicare Advantage, a scheme that partially privatizes Medicare, providing over half a billion in extra benefits for the affluent at the expense of lower income recipients. The Republican's margin among senior voters in that election was 23 percent.
"The Republicans will argue that the Democrats will bankrupt Social Security and they will keep Social Security solvent," Schakowsky said. "Yet the truth is, the Republican budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is a complete privatization of Social Security, a plan to turn Social Security over to the tender mercies of the insurance corporations," she said.
"Those who attack Social Security and Medicare are espousing un-American values."
Schakowsky said, however, that the struggle to save Social Security would nevertheless be a difficult one. She cautioned against concluding from majority support for progressive positions in opinion polls that the people are "on fire" with fightback against the Republican right.
"I don't feel that everyone in my district is on fire," she said. "Too many people feel beaten down by the cutbacks, by the high unemployment ... We need truth squads all over the country to expose these attacks" and mobilize a fight to increase Social Security benefits and lower the retirement age.
The rightwing, she said, "Is out of touch. We have chosen to defend and protect these programs that benefit 54 million Americans."
Maria P. Freese, director of Governmental Relations of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, presented recent poll data proving overwhelming majority support of Social Security and Medicare no matter how pollsters formulate their questions. She said these programs are "core values" of the American people. Yet the threat is so dire, her organization has moved toward direct mobilization, setting up field offices and hiring organizers.
The "Supercommittee," she added, is weighing cuts in Social Security and proposing raising the retirement age, even though Social Security is self-financing and adds nothing to the federal deficits.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, president of Global Policy Solutions, drew applause when she called for vigilance against Democrat's tendency to compromise with the Republican right. She told the crowd she attended a White House conference on Social Security and Medicare and was "appalled" to hear Laurence Summers, one of Obama's top advisers, casually opine that the retirement age should once again be raised. "That is a cut in benefits," she said, and reminded the meeting that, "It has taken the progressive base to be that backbone for the Democratic Party."
Social Security can be fully funded "by raising the cap on income subject to Social Security withholding taxes," she said.
Eric Kingson, a former Social Security commissioner and a leader of Social Security Works, said the program once enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support. In 1983, the extremist Cato Institute, an outfit bankrolled by the billionaire Koch brothers, published a report on the "deconstruction of Social Security," Kingson said. Part of their strategy, he said, was to "turn the word entitlement into a four letter word," implying that anyone receiving any publicly funded benefit is a freeloader.
Despite the drumfire, he said, "the public supports the program more passionately today than ever before," because the need is more urgent than ever.
From the crowd, someone called out, "Call them earned benefits, not entitlements. We worked for them."