No one with any knowledge of American politics or any experience in the practice of it in Washington could be surprised by the firestorm of protest which has followed President Reagan's unexpected proposal to pull back on social security benefits.
Social security has long been accepted among politicians as the first sacred cow of the Republic. You could touch almost anything else, but not social security. Why? Because present and future recepients of social security checks are the great middle class of America. They are the prudent people who get and hold jobs and plan for their retirement years. And they vote.
There are nearly 36 million people getting social security checks now. And almost everyone in the great middle class who is still working looks forward to getting them when his or her working years are over.In terms of the American work ethic these are the worthiest people in the country. They are also the last ones to expect Ronald Reagan to whittle down their benefits.
After all, they marched by the millions behind his banner during last year's political campaign. To most of them the new proposals must seem the ultimate in ingratitude.
The result cannot have surprised the Reagan White House. Hence the deed which triggered the reaction must have been deliberate, not the result of political ignorance or ineptitude. What then do we make of it?
It shows Ronald Reagan as a political strategist of considerable skill. A deed as unpopular as this must be done either at the very beginning of an administration, or at the end. President Carter violated that rule by bringing in his Panama Canal treaty in the middle. It hurt him seriously. Mr. Reagan has done it within his first four months, and as soon as possible.
Had he brought in his social security proposals along with his budget cuts he would probably have lost both battles. The budget cuts are primarily at the expense of the lower economic classes -- the recipients of welfare in all its many forms. To alienate and antagonize both welfare and social security recipients at the same time would have ended in disaster. They had to be taken on one at a time. He had won his battle against the welfare community on May 7. He launched his attack on the social security front on May 12.
It also shows a broader and more determined attack on inflation than I, for one, had dreamed the Reagan administration would dare to undertake. A new President has to be in earnest about wanting to curb inflation to take on the great army of pensioners. No one who is thinking first and foremost about getting votes for his party in 1982 would take on a battle like this one if he thought he could possibly avoid it. To assume that he must fight it makes sense only in terms of a deep determination to do all possible to curb the inflation.
Did Mr. Reagan have to take on the social security pensioners in order to curb the inflation? I think it probably was necessary, no matter how painful to the pensioners, and to his party. The essential point is that the United States is at a stage in its economic history where inflation has to be checked now, lest we plunge down the slippery slope of ever more inflation toward some ultimately disastrous day of reckoning.
How does one check inflation if the great American middle class is going to be shielded from it by having its pensions indexed at or a litte above the rate of inflation? Pensions have been going up at about 2 percent above the basic inflation rate, whereas wages have been going up below the inflation rate. That means that wage earners are more angry about inflation than are pensioners. By reducing future benefits just a little, as propose pensioners are likely to become just as angry as wage earners -- hence more vociferous against inflation.
To sum up, Mr. Reagan has engaged in an unexpected battle. His strategy is skillful. He obviously must be sincere in his desire to check the inflation. Otherwise he would not expose his party to reprisals at the 1982 polls from those who receive or expect to receive social security pensions. He is seen fighting one battle at a time, choosing the time and place of each battle.
He has gained one important advantage by opening the social security issue. He can no longer be accused of trying to stabilize the economy at the expense of only welfare recipients. He is now asking the middle class also to accept a share of the burden. He may not be able to get them to do it. They certainly will not like it. But if he wins this one even in part he will deserve to be ranked al ong with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in political skill.