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The next big thing, and why Erin Bilbray should get on it

<p style="text-align:center;">Erin Bilbray-Kohn</p>

Erin Bilbray-Kohn

Some Democratic lawmakers in Washington want to expand Social Security. Harry Reid has yet to publicly endorse the idea, but he should. The same goes for Erin Bilbray, the Democrat who hopes to unseat Republican incumbent Joe Heck in Nevada’s third congressional district.

Wait … what? Expand Social Security? But … but … but … the deficit!!!!

For decades insecure congressional Democrats have been caving to Republican narratives and wringing their hands over the debt and the deficit. Economists warned that spending cuts during the great recession would hurt the economy. But those warnings were drowned out by the sound of politicians from both parties shrieking in panic over the debt and the deficit.

So spending was cut, and the economy was hurt. In the worst economy since the Great Depression, the nation’s political leaders have said almost nothing about economics. Instead the two parties have argued not over whether to cut spending, but by how much.

Bilbray is on track to echo establishment Democrats and discuss the nation’s public insurance programs on Republican deficit-obsessed turf (Reid’s resided there for years). Her website’s entry on Social Security and Medicare vows to protect the programs from privatization and future cuts, but also makes a beeline for the importance of austerity: “Congress needs to address the deficit and spending by eliminating corporate tax loopholes, cutting spending, cracking down on waste and fraud, and tightening our belts.” Goodness. Cutting spending and tightening our belts. It’s the economic policy equivalent of country and western.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has introduced legislation that would increase Social Security benefits for seniors by an estimated $70 a month. Under Harkin’s bill, Social Security checks would also grow more quickly in the future, to more fairly reflect the rising cost of living. To pay for better retirement benefits, the bill would phase out the current taxable cap of $113,700 so that people who earned more than that would pay the same payroll tax rate as everybody else.

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who backs Harkin’s bill, recently told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent there are two numbers Democrats should hone in on as they attempt to take the public insurance narrative back to progressive turf where it belongs. “One is a third of seniors rely on Social Security for virtually their entire income. The other is that more than half of seniors rely on Social Security for significantly more than half their income.”

Reliance on Social Security is only going to become greater over time. Most of the private sector eliminated pension programs decades ago. Employees were urged to invest in 401k’s. That hasn’t worked well at all, partly because employees have not invested in a disciplined, consistent manner, but mostly because stagnant or declining incomes have made it impossible for workers to pay their bills and have a meaningful amount of money left over to deposit in a retirement account. Toss market crashes in with a few decades of the 401k experiment, and the chances of someone who is retiring today having enough money put away to meet basic expenses is, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, roughly fifty-fifty.

That’s going to get worse. “Retirement insecurity has worsened for most Americans as retirement wealth has become more unequal,” the Economic Policy Institute reported earlier this month. “For many groups, the typical household has no savings in retirement accounts and balances are low even when focusing only on households with savings.”

An aging population’s plunge into poverty is not good for the economy. Strengthening Social Security will help the economy more than “reforming” Social Security by raising the retirement age or cutting future benefits. Strengthening Social Security is good policy.

If there’s one thing Republicans want nothing to do with, it’s good policy, and there’s no chance that Harkin’s bill could get through either chamber of Congress today. That partly explains why Reid hasn’t jumped on board the issue. His hands are full with bold measures like, oh, trying to keep the government open.

But Bilbray should embrace Harkin’s proposal, not just because it’s good policy, but because it’s good politics.

If Bilbray calls for bigger Social Security checks, Heck would find himself campaigning … against bigger Social Security checks. That could be a dicey proposition: The most famous thing Heck has ever said about Social Security is that it’s as a “pyramid scheme.”

To have a chance against Heck, Bilbray needs Democrats to show up in an off-year election. Much has been written lately (perhaps most notably Noam Scheiber’s New Republic piece on Elizabeth Warren) about Democratic voters becoming more progressive and populist, especially when compared to Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton and other current or potential party leaders.

A Democratic politician in Nevada who stakes out a populist and progressive position on Social Security (or pretty much any fiscal or economic issue) would be warmly welcomed by rank and file Democratic voters. Yes, the faithful base will show up to vote against Heck, or more accurately, against Tea Party control of the House, as a matter of course and no matter who the Democratic challenger is.

But more casual, or disillusioned, Democrats voters would prefer to have something to vote for.

The fundamentals are not good for a challenger to knock off the Republican incumbent in Nevada’s third congressional district next year, with or without a sharp contrast between the candidates on Social Security.

Then again, as Americans age, the demand for expanding – not cutting – Social Security is only going to grow louder and more popular in future election cycles – something Reid, and maybe Bilbray, too, would do well to remember.

Or as Brown, the senator from Ohio puts it, “Why would we play on their playing field? Democrats need to play offense here.”

HUGH JACKSON’S column runs every other week.