In an article last week in The Nation, Thomas Geoghegan argues Democrats should learn three lessons from FDR: (1) Do something for your base; (2) Do something for your base; and (3) Do something for your base. But what base does he mean?

Like many progressives, Geoghegan is both concerned with the mood of the electorate in 2010 and disappointed with the progress thus far by the Obama administration. I too have been disappointed on some issues, and believe we grassroots Democrats must get busy with GOTV and turn out our voters, or the 2010 midterms may be disastrous. Geoghegan argues the most important thing our elected leaders can do is enact policies that will help the base. But he draws a very narrow definition of “the base.”

For example, in discussing the 2010 health care act, Geoghegan writes:

To the public, the new law seems to benefit only the uninsured: the young or the marginal, few of whom will even vote in 2010 (maybe just a third of the electorate will). So while the new law is a big help to them, it does nothing for the rest of our base, especially our smaller core base that will vote in the midterms. Indeed, it seems to penalize our base, or at least raise their taxes, at a time when they have lost a big chunk of their 401(k) pensions, or their jobs, or even their homes[.]

So the “young or the marginal” – by which he seems to mean families whose incomes make them eligible for Medicaid or substantial health insurance subsidies – are not really our party’s base. They are especially not “our smaller core base,” for whom the 2010 health care act will “raise their taxes.”

But that law only raises taxes for families with incomes over $250,000.

And that may explain Geoghegan’s motivation for the first of his ten proposals: to increase Social Security benefits to 50% of income, with no income cap on Social Security taxes. In short, a worker with a median annual income of $48,000 would pay FICA on the full amount (as presently), and later receive annual retiree benefits of $24,000 (vs. $18,720 now). And a worker with an annual income of $250,000 would pay FICA on the full amount – the cap is now $106,800 – and later receive annual retiree benefits of $125,000 (vs. $41,652 now).

Benefits would rise by about one-third for the median income worker … and triple for the $250,000 earner … under Geoghegan’s proposal to “do something for your base.”

In a later section, Geoghegan writes:

Remember: organized labor is not our base. The working people of the country are our base. We have to repackage labor law reform, even over the protest of organized labor itself.

In that section, Geoghegan proposes a civil right to join – or not to join – a labor union. That is, even if a business has a union contract, employees who don’t want to join the union should be exempt. Instead, the law should be changed to let employees hire their own attorneys and sue their employers. Perhaps coincidentally, Geoghegan is a lawyer who represents employees in labor disputes.

While some of Geoghegan’s other proposals express progressive values, neither his definition of “the base” nor his proposals for Social Security or labor fit my vision of progressive.

For example, were I assigned to reform Social Security, I would remove the income cap – as Geoghegan does – and standardize retiree benefits as the median income (currently about $48,000) less the retiree’s other pension or annuity benefits.Thus:

  • A retiree with no other pension or annuity would receive annual Social Security benefits of about $48,000.
  • A retiree whose other pension 0r annuity benefits total $24,000 per year would receive annual Social Security benefits of about $24,000.
  • A retiree whose other pension or annuity benefits exceed $48,000 per year would receive no annual Social Security benefits.

My proposal would guarantee every retiree at least a median income. Those who want more than a median income in retirement would have to make their own investments, and having done so would not need Social Security retirement benefits.

Would my proposal help “the base?” Well, it would help ordinary American families who most need help. It might help make them “the base,” and that’s a lot more people than “the smaller core base” – progressives earning over $250,000 – that Geoghegan thinks Democrats should help.

His base, it seems, is people like himself.

Don’t we already have another party for that?