Chris Van Hollen is a career legislator running with the support of party leaders in Maryland. Joe Sestak is a onetime admiral in the U.S. Navy running an outsider’s campaign in Pennsylvania.
But the two Democratic candidates for Senate share an important similarity: Both once praised the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan — and are now paying the price.
Van Hollen, who is running against fellow Rep. Donna Edwards, called Simpson-Bowles a “framework” for a budget deal during a 2012 interview. Sestak, who held a House seat for two terms and is running against former Al Gore adviser Katie McGinty, said it is a “template” for deficit reduction during a January speech.
Both Maryland and Pennsylvania hold their congressional primaries on April 26. Polls show near toss-ups in both races with Sestak and Edwards leading narrowly in most.
To Edwards and McGinty, those comments were potent enough to make them central to their campaigns, seizing on the plan’s proposed changes to Social Security. In a torrent of TV ads and public statements, the candidates have accused their opponents of selling out seniors to cut a backroom deal with Republicans.
Now, both Democrats are playing defense and are emphatic that they wouldn’t back reductions to Social Security (Van Hollen backs legislation to expand it). Each points out that although they once complimented the plan’s big-picture aim, they never embraced its specific entitlement cuts. But their down-to-the-wire primaries have become, at least in part, a referendum on whether an old and partial embrace of the much-ballyhooed 2010 proposal amounts to a betrayal of liberal values.
The dynamics of the state primaries are also a sign of how far the proposal has fallen out of favor with Democratic candidates and voters alike, after a time in which it was pro forma for some party leaders to praise the proposal, at least conceptually. A party (including its leader President Barack Obama) that only a few years ago discussed a proposal like Simpson-Bowles seriously with Republicans, has now moved on to other issues more attuned to the Democratic base — like income inequality.
“It’s like the Voldemort of budgeting,” said Stan Collender, a veteran Democratic staffer on the House and Senate budget committees. “It’s the name that shall not be mentioned in polite Democratic discussion.”
He added: “No one is talking about the deficit. And no one is going to talk about the deficit.”
The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was created by Obama in 2010, chaired by former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton Erskine Bowles. It made a list of recommendations that included raising the retirement age for Social Security and changing the way cost-of-living adjustments were calculated.
Neither the House nor Senate voted on the proposal. But the plan did generate a great deal of debate in Washington, and nearly six years later, a bevy of attacks in the Maryland and Pennsylvania races.
Edwards used the first negative attack ad of her campaign to mention Van Hollen’s alleged support for Social Security cuts, saying the average person can’t afford them.
Supporting average people is “why I’ve said ‘no’ to the Social Security cuts Chris Van Hollen said he’d consider,” the congresswoman says in the ad.
In a debate in Pittsburgh last week, McGinty said her policeman father deserved his Social Security benefits when he retired, accusing Sestak of wanting to make it harder for him to do so.
“My parents retired on Social Security and couldn’t have made it without it,” she said. “That’s the wrong choice and wrong for working families.”
Sestak shot back that he voted 41 times to protect and strengthen the program. His campaign also pointed out that while Sestak has praised Simpson-Bowles, he’s far from the only Democrat to do so.
McGinty’s own campaign chairman, in fact, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, has said that Democrats were “wusses” not to embrace Simpson-Bowles. McGinty, who also served as chief of staff to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, attended a fundraiser in Washington this week hosted by former Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu, both of whom have praised the deficit-reduction plan.
In a statement, the McGinty campaign brushed off any suggestion of hypocrisy.
“Katie is adamantly opposed to any plan that would raise the Social Security retirement age and does not have to agree with every position of every person supporting her,” said Sabrina Singh, a McGinty campaign spokeswoman.
Social Security advocates opposed to cuts say the penalty Democratic candidates are now paying for backing Simpson-Bowles is a sign of how much the party’s attitude toward entitlement programs has shifted. A plan that once received perfunctory praise from many Democrats is now a poison primary pill.
Many Democrats now embrace not cutting but expanding Social Security, said Max Richtman, president and CEO of the Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. It’s a remarkable change in just a few short years, he said.
Although his group has not endorsed in the Maryland Democratic primary, Richtman does not believe the attacks on Van Hollen are fair, he said citing the congressman’s support for a House bill that would expand Social Security. He wasn’t as sure about the criticism against Sestak, who Richtman said hasn’t backed similar legislation.