It's a brave man who speaks of raising the retirement age in a state with the highest percentage of residents 65 years of age and over. But that's exactly what Senator-elect Marco Rubio (R) dared to do. He touched the third rail. And the 39-year-old conservative daredevil not only survived, he dominated, winning 49 percent of the overall vote in Florida's three-way Senate race.
The co-chairs of President Obama's bi-partisan Deficit Reduction Commission, Democrat and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senate Whip Alan Simpson, agree. Their draft proposal released today recommends indexing the Social Security retirement age to longevity, raising the level of income subject to payroll taxes, adjusting calculations for cost-of-living increases, and decreasing benefits paid to higher earners, while adding a new minimum benefit to keep minimum-wage retirees above the poverty level. The changes to Social Security, and some $200 billion a year in domestic and defense spending cuts, have yet to be approved by the required 14 of 18 commission members before presentation to Congress for consideration.
Well before the report was released, it was Republicans on the election trail who spoke most honestly about the hard decisions ahead. Rubio, like Rep. Paul Ryan (WI), Rep. Eric Cantor (VA), Gov. Mitch Daniels (IN), and Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN), is one of a new breed of leader who dared to boldly go where others fear to tread. And positions which were once American apostasy are the new reality.
Rubio, and a few vocal others, were early supporters of Ryan's plan to gradually increase the age for Social Security payouts, and to slow cost of living increases for younger generations, with protections for those who are now 55 years and older.
And despite fear-mongering on the left, seniors turned out in droves for the midterms—making up 23 percent of voters nationwide, a jump from the 19 percent share in 2006—and they favored Republicans by a 21-point margin.
Well before the report was released, it was Republicans on the election trail who spoke most honestly about the hard decisions ahead.
Seniors aren't stupid. Nor are independent voters who swung heavily to the GOP. At 28 percent of the electorate, independents supported Republican congressional candidates by an overwhelming margin of 56 to 38 percent, a dramatic 36-point turnaround from 2006.
Yet politicians are already pushing back against the debt-reduction commission proposals before the debate begins. Voters in the real world understand budgeting better than some of the brainiacs inside the Beltway. It's pretty simple: You can't keep spending more than you earn. And hardworking Americans are ready for "the conversation we must have," as suggested by Rep. Cantor, the likely new House majority leader, in his plan, " Delivering on Our Commitment."
Gov. Pawlenty also stepped forward this week in a run-up to a likely presidential campaign, presenting the harsh truth with disarming reasonableness: "If you look at a pie chart of federal outlays, discretionary spending being the red, non-discretionary being the blue. The blue is already over the halfway mark and it's growing in double digits. Anybody who comes in here and tells you they're not going to cut anything other than waste, fraud and abuse, they're not going to touch entitlements — they're lying to you. If you want to deal with the spending issue, in terms of total federal outlays, you got to deal with interest on the national debt, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid ... [T]hat's the truth, you've got to do entitlement reform..."
To address the fiscal fiasco facing us, both political parties have to change their definition of acceptable thinking. In reviewing the recommendations from the debt commission, and from members of the new Congress, Democrats must be willing to consider spending cuts and Republicans must be willing to consider new revenue sources. No sacred cows can be spared a cut or two. And to decrease tax rates across the board, some deductions may have to go. The debt commission's proposal to overhaul the tax code is projected to $80 billion in increased revenue in 2015. But to make the right hard decisions, we can't wimp out and we can't brand as traitors, or worse, those with the courage to step out and make the first moves.
But that's precisely what happened to Gov. Daniels, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. Daniels had the temerity to merely mention apparently taboo words: value-added tax and gasoline tax. He didn't officially endorse either as a policy change. He posited both as examples of thinking about results rather than ideology. For this transgression of GOP orthodoxy (the mere mention of a tax), Daniels was compared to a Nazi war-enactor and a crystal meth abuser by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.
Democracy is wonderfully ugly. And the elections last week proved the American people want a vigorous debate, not a one-sided takeover.
It's well past time to consider the best ideas from the right, from the left, from the center. And tough choices are ahead. At the end of the day, restoring some semblance of sanity will require more warriors on the quest willing to touch all of the third rails.
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.