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A Note to POTUS

Dear Mr. President,

I was thrilled to vote for you in 2008. I admired your intelligence and your self-confidence. I thought your calls for a post-partisan future were naïve, but well-meant. And, you spoke in a language, a morally driven language, that evoked the strong words of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, language about the common good and the least of our brethren. I thought in voting for you not only that my vote – and millions of others – would help free our nation from the idolatry of laissez-faire economic theory, but that you stood with FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, in their commitment to keeping the Democratic Party as the champion of the working class.

The news reports about your desire for a “grand bargain” now fill me and others like me with dread. So, let me start by saying what I was not voting for when I voted for you in 2008.

I was not voting for an increase in the retirement age. You and me and most of the people we know may work with our minds and our keyboards, and just so we look forward to working as long as we have breath. But, people who work in restaurants and mines and landscaping and at construction sites, for them, an extra two years of back-breaking work is a big deal. If you want to mess with Social Security, I can understand the need to means test the benefits, restricting payouts to those who need them. There are dangers here, to be sure: As FDR understood, the universality of the program helped guarantee its political survival. But, raising the retirement age or restricting cost-of-living increases below the actual rate of inflation, those are things a Democrat should be ashamed to propose.

I was not voting for you so that you can take away the home mortgage deduction. Now, if you want to restrict that deduction to one home, I have your back: People with two homes, of necessity, are doing okay and don’t need the second tax break. Of all the dumb ideas in the Bowles-Simpson proposals, eliminating the home mortgage interest deduction was the dumbest. It helps people buy a home, and home ownership requires a person to take care of their property and their neighborhood. Home ownership helps families stabilize their own investment rather than just paying someone else’s mortgage. I understand that this, state and local taxes, and charitable donations are the three largest deductions costing the Treasury tax revenue, but all three serve useful public purposes and all are, at least in theory, accessible to all. So, when you think about tax reform, think of keeping only these three deductions and getting rid of all the rest. If big corporations can make billions and pay no tax revenue, fix that before you come after the home mortgage interest deduction.

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I was not voting for you to mess around with Medicare. Again, as in the first two instances, I worry you have the wrong economic team. I like the idea of super smart people advising you, but it would also be nice to have someone who knows what it is to be poor and someone who can at least advocate for those who are not super-bright and who did not go to Harvard or Columbia or Yale. Your job as leader of the Democratic Party is to protect Medicare. If you had thought about it at the time, you should have organized your health care reform plan around a simple principle: Medicare for Everybody! I suspect that would have sold better with the public not least because it would have been easier for them to understand. Nut, while many people attribute the GOP midterm election victory to their calls for smaller government, I suspect a lot of their candidates won because they faulted the cuts in Medicare you included as part of the health care reform law.

Now, I understand that in a negotiation with people of different ideological positions, it is sometimes necessary to give in on something your base likes. But, Mr. President, the cuts in spending are the trade-off for increased revenue, not entitlement reform. Unfortunately, because the GOP leaders seem so intransigent, you seem inclined to put anything and everything on the table. As I mentioned last week, the only thing you haven’t offered is a date with Michelle.

If you want to reform entitlements, you must run and win on that reform. And, the way to reform entitlements is to start by removing the cap on FICA taxes or, even better, end payroll taxes altogether and make entitlements part of the general budget, funded by income and corporate taxes. Introduce means’ testing as necessary. Devise a genuine plan for introducing more subsidiarity into Medicaid, giving states some latitude but insisting that certain performance standards be met. And, Mr. President, could you please start laying the groundwork to make another point about entitlements: In our highly centrifugal society, so often incapable of recognizing the common good still less pursuing it, we should be loath to restrict programs that provide some centripetal counter-force.

So, Mr. President, think about your place in history as the architect of some grand compromise a little less and think a little more about the historicity of leading the Democratic Party and, just so, defending the great programs of the New Deal from the assault upon them by radical ideologues committed to a Social Darwinism America has not seen since the 1920s. Many of us are proud of your persistence in achieving health care reform. We hope you will be able to achieve a grand compromise on tax reform. We hope you will be able to run on and win comprehensive immigration reform. But, there is no greater legacy available to any politician in this moment than to be known to history as the man who defended the common good embodied in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and who kept faith with the working class in this country.

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July 18-31, 2014

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