Reprinted from Campaign For America's Future
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, is running for the Senate seat currently occupied by Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski. He is also running from his record -- as a supporter of the "Simpson-Bowles" plan to cut Social Security and top tax rates, a once-favored economic agenda among Washington insiders and some wealthy private interests.
That's a smart move -- but Rep. Van Hollen has more ground to cover.
As we reported last week, progressive groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America strongly encouraged Rep. Donna Edwards to enter the Senate race. She did -- with a video announcement that directly challenged Van Hollen's support of recommendations named for the leaders of the 2010 White House deficit commission, Republican ex-senator Alan Simpson and Democratic operative Erskine Bowles.
Van Hollen had said he was "willing to consider" entitlement cuts. Edwards' video response was blunt: She boasted that she was known for "standing up to anyone who would compromise away Social Security and Medicare -- no ifs, ands, buts, or 'willing to considers.'"
Van Hollen apparently got the message. This week he endorsed legislation from Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) that would expand Social Security benefits by removing the payroll tax cap (which currently exempts income above $118,500 per year) for earnings of $400,000 and above.
"You don't save Social Security by cutting Social Security," said Van Hollen, in a striking reversal from his past positions.
He is to be commended for this shift. It's the right policy, and polling shows overwhelming support for a bill like Rep. Larson's. A survey conducted last year by Lake Research Partners shows that three-quarters of Republicans and independents, as well as 90 percent of Democrats, support this approach. And, as Celinda Lake told me in an interview last September, Social Security is a "valence issue" that changes votes.
Social Security is clearly a major issue in the Maryland race. What are the national implications?
1. The debate has shifted.
In the insular world of the Beltway, the Simpson-Bowles plan was totemic in the early years of this decade. Support for it was a sign of "seriousness" among those who supported Social Security cuts and its other ideas. Simpson-Bowles' neoliberal policy prescriptions were popular with the wealthy backers of its self-described "centrist" agenda, as well as with the arbiters of Washington's self-limiting political debate.
Social Security expansion, on the other hand, was considered a "fringe" idea. Even when polls were commissioned showing its popularity, and even after economists demonstrated it was feasible and wise, there were deep-seated resistance to the idea among influential people in politics and the media.
That's changed. Social Security cuts no longer hold "bipartisan" appeal -- and a growing number of proposals and bills now call for Social Security expansion.
2. The "Overton window" has moved.
The change in the Social Security debate reflects a broader shift. The range of political thought included in the mainstream political debate -- for the public, and more recently for political and media insiders -- is sometimes described as the "Overton window." It shifted sharply rightward after the 1980s, as Republicans embraced a more extreme conservative platform and corporate-funded Democrats gained more influence over their party.
The public has been moving the other way, however, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Voters are increasingly embracing an economically populist agenda, according to a number of polls, and a growing number of politicians are following suit. This shift can be seen in the debate over Social Security, but it is also reflected in public opinion on issues that range from taxation to trade.