Surprise Guest at Social Security Rally: An Opposition Party

April 26, 2005

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James Roosevelt stood on a large outdoor stage on Tuesday in a Washington, D.C., park filled with union members waving signs about Social Security. “Every American,” he said, “deserves what my grandfather, Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out for them.”

The shouts that followed that remark must have been heard inside the nearby U.S. Capitol.

“Are we in this country ever a We, or is it I and Me all the time?” asked Roosevelt, to more shouts and applause.

The shouting and cheering had already followed remarks by various speakers during the previous hour, including people who recounted how Social Security had affected their families’ lives, but also including the leaders of many organizations. Kim Gandy, the President of the National Organization for Women spoke, as did Barbara Kennelly, President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. Perhaps the loudest applause greeted Gerald McEntee, President of AFSCME, the union whose green shirts filled the area closest to the stage.

But James Roosevelt concluded his remarks with an unusual introduction that got the whole crowd on the tips of its toes, straining to see what was coming. Roosevelt said he was introducing “the United States Congress.”

And he wasn’t exactly kidding. Dozens and dozens of US Senators and Representatives made their way through from the back of the crowd and up onto the stage. Of course, they were all Democrats, but they were not all Democrats who always act like Democrats. The more right-wing members of the party stood together with the more progressive. While it has become routine for a quarter to a third of Democrats to vote with the Republicans on legislation favoring corporations over citizens, that clearly was not happening on the question of privatization of Social Security – at least not on this day.

The assembled legislature on the stage took turns speaking, a pair at a time, each pair including a senator and a representative, the first two being Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the latter fresh from having voted for the Republicans’ bankruptcy bill, which Durbin had voted against. Today they were a united opposition party.

“I am proud to stand here as a Franklin Delano Roosevelt Democrat,” Durbin shouted during a fiery speech that kept the crowd’s energy going.

Hoyer, too, was proud to be a Democrat – or as close to it as he’s capable of coming. If, he said, Bush “thought there was no fight left in the Democratic Party, he was sadly mistaken.” But Hoyer was quick to add “We don’t oppose privatization because it’s a Republican idea.” (At this point I heard a couple of people in the crowd shout things to the effect of “Some of us do!”) Hoyer, in a rather uneloquent speech, concluded that we should oppose privatization because it is a “bad idea.”

Durbin and Hoyer both encouraged Bush to continue touring the country to talk about privatization, and offered to buy him tickets to do so. “The more Americans learn,” Hoyer said, “the less they like it.”

Next up were Senator Max Baucus of Montana (pro-bankruptcy bill) and Congressman Charlie Rangel of New York (anti-bankruptcy bill). Rangel was greeted with shouts of “Charlie! Charlie!” from New York union members who’d ridden busses down for the day.

Rangel, like several of those who spoke, expressed his disappointment that Bush was not in town but was instead “in Texas with Tom Delay.” Rangel said that if he could give Bush some advice it would be that there are three things you do not do. “You don’t spit against the wind. You don’t look under the Lone Ranger’s mask. And you don’t mess with our Social Security!”

Many of the speakers referred to Social Security as the most successful program ever created by the US government. Rangel described its defense as an historic stand. Not everyone, he said, was able to say they had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., or Adam Clayton Powell. “But what will you say when they ask you ‘What were you doing when the president was destroying every social program?’ You can tell them that today you made history because you stopped those rascals when they were trying to take away Social Security.”

Of course, this was all speaking to the choir and to the media. No terribly new arguments or information were presented. But Senator Barbara Boxer on Tuesday released something that should be of interest, a report analyzing the damage done to retirees in three Texas counties that chose in the 1980s to opt out of Social Security and offer their public employees privatized accounts. “By examining the actual system in place in Texas,” Boxer said in a release, “this study shows that Americans are worse off with privatized accounts – not in theory, but in reality.”

The third and final pair to approach the podium at Tuesday’s rally were Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California (yes and no votes, respectively, on the bankruptcy bill).

Reid didn’t pull many punches. If we do nothing to Social Security, he said, Bush will be able to collect 100 percent of his benefits until he is 106. Privatization, he said, is a “buzz word for destroying Social Security.”

Bush may not know much about it, Reid said, because the crowds he speaks to include only those who agree with him. “His staff removes people like you,” Reid told the crowd assembled in Washington.

Reid said that Republicans were moving ahead with a Senate hearing on Social Security on Tuesday, but that no one from the Bush Administration had been willing to come and talk about their position.

Reid’s central message was that the Democrats are together on opposing privatization. In a promise that activists will want to remember, Reid said, “It may take 60 days, it may take 6 months, it may take 6 years, it doesn’t matter, we’re not going to back down!”

The event concluded with loudspeakers blasting the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down.”

David Swanson is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America. His website is

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