Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming has a reputation as one of the funniest men in the US Senate of recent years. He was usually among those politicians former President Reagan gathered at the White House for libations and storytelling when Nancy Reagan was out of town.
But Wednesday, a quip made by the man who is now a co-chair of President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission was no laughing matter – at least to liberal activists and bloggers now calling for his head.
In an e-mail this week to Ashley Carson, executive director of the National Older Women's League (OWL), Simpson compared Social Security to "a milk cow with 310 million [teats]!" Only he didn't say "teats" but something similar, and shall we say, a bit more colorful and perhaps derogatory. And he concluded by telling Ms. Carson to "call when you get honest work!"
Who he offended: the list
"This demeaning attitude toward Social Security is consistent with factually incorrect statements made by Senator Simpson in the past which show a complete misunderstanding of the true financial condition of Social Security," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) or Oregon wrote to President Obama Wednesday. (They might have noted that Simpson once referred to Social Security recipients as "greedy geezers.")
"In order for your commission's recommendations to have credibility with Congress," the two liberal lawmakers wrote, "we respectfully urge you to remove Senator Simpson from the commission."
National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill said "Simpson's rant is a nasty reminder of how ageist and sexist some of our leaders still are." (NOW is asking members and supporters to send $5 for the organization to send baby bottle nipples to the White House as part of its campaign to oust Simpson.)
Advocates for seniors were not delighted, either.
"The vast majority of the 310 million Americans he insulted – particularly 156 million women and younger Americans for whom the traditional pension will be a relic of history – don’t have access to the type of traditional pension retirement security that Senator Simpson has from his decades in Congress," AARP Senior Vice President Drew Nannis said in a statement. "Perhaps that’s why his comments demonstrate a woeful disconnect from or disinterest in the challenges facing many American families for whom Social Security is literally a lifeline."
With 40 million members, AARP wields a lot of political clout. But is it the end for Simpson on what's formally known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform?
He was quick to apologize to Carson at OWL, noting on the fiscal commission's web site that: "Over the last 40 years, I have had my size 15 feet in my mouth a time or two."
"I apologize for what I wrote," he said. "I can see that my remarks have caused you anguish, and that was not my intention. I certainly did not intend to diminish your hard work for the Older Women’s League. I know you care deeply about strengthening Social Security, and so do I, just as deeply."
Obama in (another) bind
The whole episode puts Mr. Obama in a bind.
At the White House Wednesday deputy communications director Jennifer Psaki, said, “Alan Simpson has apologized, and while we regret and do not condone his comments, we accept his apology and he will continue to serve.”
Maybe so, but Social Security is likely to get even hotter as this fall's elections approach.
As the Monitor's Judy Nichols Douglass wrote recently, Democrats are "emphasizing the program’s popularity among Americans, their commitment to protecting it, and their contention that Republicans want to change Social Security to its detriment."
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has put out a “Social Security Scorecard,” warning that "senior citizens would see their life savings recklessly gambled away on Wall Street" if privatization plans allegedly espoused by some Republican Senate candidates are adopted. (A dubious notion since most Republicans are steering clear of the issue.)
They don't call Social Security "the third rail of politics" for nothing.