Sound familiar? Does it seem to you you've heard that song before?
The time is 1935-36, the President is Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the program is Social Security.
The Republican politician was Alf Landon, popular Governor of Kansas. Nicholaus Mills' excellent article in Dissent magazine, published during the 2005 debate over whether to privatize Social Security, summarizes the 1935-36 debates well:
Landon’s attack on Social Security was stated most sharply in a September 26, 1936, speech, “I Will Not Promise the Moon,” that he gave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Based on a report done for the Twentieth Century Fund, Landon’s speech attacked Social Security, which was due to begin collecting contributions on January 1, 1937, as a philosophical and economic disaster. As Landon put it, “This law is unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted, and wastefully financed.”But as recounted by both Mills and Roosevelt's premier biographer, Arthur Schlesinger, this opposition forced FDR into a full-throated attack on the moneyed interests aligned against the program.
Landon argued that Social Security was “paternal government,” at its worst. “It assumes that Americans are irresponsible. It assumes that old-age pensions are necessary because Americans lack the foresight to provide for their old age.” The contribution Social Security required from the employer, Landon argued, was sure to be “imposed” on the consumer, while the contribution Social Security required from the worker was too much for him to bear.
As if that were not enough, the “vast army of clerks” required to administer Social Security, would, Landon insisted, create a bloated bureaucracy that would be a “cruel hoax” on American workers. There was, he predicted, “every probability that the cash they pay in will be used for current deficits and new extravagances,” and in the end impoverish the system. “If the present compulsory insurance plan remains in force, our old people are only too apt to find the cupboard bare,” Landon concluded.
Landon’s contention that the government was taking workers’ money and might never give it back received strong support in the business community. Two weeks before the election, workers in Detroit found placards in their plants telling them, “YOU’RE SENTENCED TO A WEEKLY PAY REDUCTION FOR ALL OF YOUR WORKING LIFE. YOU’LL HAVE TO SERVE THAT SENTENCE UNLESS YOU HELP REVERSE IT NOVEMBER 3.” When they opened their pay envelopes, the warning was even more dire. “Effective January 1937, we are compelled by a Roosevelt New Deal law to make a 1 percent deduction from your wages and turn it over to the government. You might get this money back . . . but only if Congress decides to make the appropriations for this purpose.”
Nowdays, Social Security is the quintessential "third rail" of politics. Although it is, without doubt, a "public option" program -- a Government agency that acts alongside private retirement and pension plans -- Social Security enjoys overwhelming public support.
But in his response to the 1936 attacks on Social Security, a different and more passionate Roosevelt took center stage. FDR did not hesitate to label those opposed to Social Security as “organized money” and to describe the assault on Social Security as class warfare by the rich.
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“But they are guilty of more than deceit,” Roosevelt went on to say of his Social Security critics. When they promote the idea that the Social Security reserves will be stolen by some future Congress, “they attack the integrity of American government itself. Those who suggest that are already aliens to the spirit of American democracy.”
Most important, in his Madison Square Garden speech FDR drew a clear moral distinction between those who wanted to dismantle Social Security and the New Deal and those who saw them as essential to the country. “Your Government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan and not with those who pass by on the other side,” Roosevelt told his audience. “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”
So FDR did not "Sovietize America" with the signing of the Social Security Act, any more than Obama will create a "Socialist America" by creating a publicly funded health insurance entity. President Obama needs to come out swinging tonight, with the fire that characterized FDR's defense of Social Security in 1936.
He couldn't ask for a better precedent: Alf Landon was trounced by FDR in the 1936 election, 60% to 36% in the popular vote, and 523-8 in the Electoral College.
Back down the fearmongers, Mr. President.
Master "the forces of selfishness and lust for power" that are blocking the right to health care.
Don't back down now.