"Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas.
Their number is negligible and they are stupid."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower, private correspondence to Edgar Eisenhower (November 8, 1954)
Now you like Ike too, don't you?
He wasn't alone. Republicans to his left, like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney, and to his right, Richard Nixon and William Scranton, all agreed on the inviolability of Social Security. They also believed in the importance of labor laws governing wages, working conditions, and job safety every bit as much as they did in farm subsidies. The 'conservatism' of Nixon and Scranton (genuine right-wingers in their day, liberal Republicans by modern definition) was largely in the area of wanting to see such programs run as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, not in cutting or abolishing them, and in such regulations to be levied and enforced on a fair and efficient basis. Even Barry Goldwater (the leader of the Lunatic Right Wing Fringe in his own day, a moderate by today's Republican standards), while he argued and theorized about the dangerous encroachment of such programs on principle American freedoms, did not actively and consistently argue for the complete abolition of Social Security (though some of his supporters in his presidential bid did, to be fair); the farthest he went (far enough, it's true) in his actual platform was to advocate making Social Security voluntary.
Eisenhower and other leading Republicans of the pre-Reagan era were not political philosophers or ideologues. They were responsible statesmen interested first and foremost in responsible governing. Goldwater, it is true, was an ideologue; he was the John the Baptist of the new Conservative Religion, with his presidential bid substituting for his beheading. That's why he lost. It's why Eisenhower and Nixon won. Adlai Stephenson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern were political philosophers of liberalism rather than mechanics of the engine of government. The successful Democratic presidential candidates of the post-WWII years have been a practical Missouri farmer, a shrewd and entirely realistic New England aristocrat, the consummate artist of the Capitol Hill back room, a populist Southern peanut farmer, and a Machiavellian opportunist and consummate realist with a brilliant gift for oratory.
Yet, in the face of this parade of center left moderates, we are told that bedrock institutions of our modern society are 'failed liberal policies' that must be discarded for the good of the country. Some, labor laws (not all of them, but many... the words 'Right to Work' are so very insidious) come to mind, have already been discarded. Farm subsidies still stagger on because they have been adopted by the hard right to protect their hold on their Southern and Midwestern base, but now they come under attack from the very left that brought them into being. Because attacking the poor and the elderly directly is bad form even for many hard conservatives theses days, Medicare and Medicaid are more carefully blasted under the code-name 'entitlements.'
Which brings us to Social Security. The attack on Social Security by President George W. Bush, coincidentally one of Eisenhower's 'oil millionaires', failed in the tangible sense. He was prevented from gutting the program. In a more subtle and insidious sense, it has succeeded to a dangerous degree. Many Americans, especially Baby Boomers and their children, fear that the social safety net into which they have paid will not be there for them. This climate of fear makes them vulnerable to manipulative politics from all sides.
Social Security is in trouble, but the most serious threat to the program is not economic. Social Security's financial viability has been in danger in the past and the government, because responsible leaders on both sides of the aisle have believed in the rightness and necessity of the program, has always acted to put it back on sure footing.
No, the threat to Social Security today is a political threat. Ideology has become the bedrock of the Republican Party. Conservative political philosophers set the tone and those who would responsibly tend the mechanisms of government are condemned as 'liberal.' In his syndicated column, conservative pundit George Will blasted Senator John McCain as a closet Democrat. Why? Senator McCain wishes to protect Social Security and believes in fiscal responsibility as opposed to the trickle down, Welfare for the Rich policies of neoconservatives or the complete deregulatory chaos of the Austrian School.
Senator McCain isn't the issue. Nor is this defense of his person an endorsement of his candidacy. My endorsement is still split between Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. The issue is Social Security. It's based on a simple concept: every generation has a debt and responsibility to its progenitors. We owe our parents. Our children will owe us. The conservative political fantasy in vogue among the leaders of the Republican Party today would make every man an island responsible only for himself and that means that Social Security must go.
Consider that. The alternative is that we fulfill our debt to the preceding generation by putting Mom and Pop in a home or moving them in with us. Is that really what you want for them, or what they deserve?