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Democrats attack the GOP on Social Security and eye each other over a Lee-Patel endorsement

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (left) faces challenger Bhavini Patel in the Democratic primary to represent Pennsylvania's 12th U.S. Congressional District.
Matt Rourke / AP
Patel campaign
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (left) faces challenger Bhavini Patel in the Democratic primary to represent Pennsylvania's 12th U.S. Congressional District.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump amassed enough delegates to be their parties’ presidential nominees this week. But the real sign the campaign is underway? Democrats are attacking the GOP on Social Security and Medicare.

Those programs are a vital safety net — though they face mounting deficits that could leave them unable to pay their full benefits within a decade. And when Donald Trump said earlier this week that “there is a lot you can do … in terms of cutting” them, Democrats jumped to the attack.

“The Trump plan would leave millions of seniors with fewer benefits,” said state Rep. Jessica Benham at a Tuesday press conference organized by the Biden campaign. She called cuts “a threat to the livelihood of more than 2 million Pennsylvanians” who rely on the programs.

“I’ve seen this before,” said state Rep. Dan Frankel. “History is littered with politicians who thought they could cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to save money.’

We’ve all seen this before: Democrats warn of GOP proposals that could pare back benefits, and the threats dissipate. Which may prove a challenge for Democrats trying to get voters to take the warning seriously this time.

Plus, talk of a “Trump plan” may give the former president too much credit. Democrats were seizing on Trump’s assertion that said, in full, “There is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting, and in terms of, also, the theft and the bad management of entitlements — tremendous bad management of entitlements.”

Trump’s campaign said he just wants to cut waste, and he later promised a conservative outlet that “I will never do anything that will jeopardize” the programs.

Then again, in 2020 Trump promised that in a second term he would permanently cut the payroll taxes that support the programs. And as president, he proposed budgets that did, for example, cut Social Security spending that benefits disabled workers.

Congress rejected those cuts, and voters didn’t reelect Trump. But Benham said that while Trump “wasn’t able to make good on that promise last time, I see no reason why we shouldn’t be very, very afraid that he would be able to make good on it this time.”

Biden on U.S. Steel

Meanwhile, Biden himself brought economic issues up in another way this week — on an issue of key relevance to Western Pennsylvania.

On Thursday, he formally announced his opposition to the proposed sale of U.S. Steel to Japan-based Nippon Steel. “It is important that we maintain strong American steel companies powered by American steel workers,” Biden said.

The move is no surprise: The United Steelworkers announced more than a month agothat it had “personal assurances that President Joe Biden has our backs” in opposing the deal.

What is surprising is how quiet Trump has been, despite his long-professed concern for steelworkers and American manufacturing. He said nothing about the deal for more than a month before finally commenting briefly about it in late January,

As noted here previously, industry analysts say it’s not clear that a purchase by Nippon would be worse — and could be better — than a purchase by anyone else. And there is already concern that Biden’s statements could alienate our friends in Japan, while politicizing a federal review of the proposed sale.

Still, it’d be tough for Trump to fault anyone else for making populist appeals that anger allies and politicize government.

Squirrel Hill Democrats

And among Democrats, the fate of Big Steel is a less divisive topic than, say, Israel … as we may see yet again on Sunday, when the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club holds its endorsement meeting.

The 60-year-old East End group represents some of the region’s most active Democrats, who have long been in the vanguard of the Democratic left. Its endorsement meeting often features revealing exchanges between members and candidates. The event this year may draw extra attention because of the high-profile contest between Congresswoman Summer Lee and challenger Bhavini Patel.

In fact, there’s already been some controversy about the endorsement.

The 14th Ward encompasses the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, where Lee’s longstanding criticism of Israel has become increasingly controversial since the outbreak of war in Gaza.

Then in January, the club’s membership grew by more than half — more than 150 people. While the club has endorsed Lee in her previous races, some of her supporters fear the influx of members may tip the scales.

Those concerns mounted when the club elected new board members. One of two incumbents who lost was Ghadah Makoshi, a vocal supporter of Palestinians.

Makoshi said a lot of the new names in the club “were people I recognized as anti-Summer. It was a far more organized effort than we anticipated.”

To be clear: No one violated any rules. The club had a Jan. 31 cut-off date for new members — an effort to prevent last-minute efforts to swamp an endorsement. It requires that members be registered Democrats in the 14th Ward, and yes, it checks the voter rolls.

But Makoshi says seeking to topple Lee over Israel would betray the organization’s spirit: “There is no one who could say, ‘starvation of children and bombing of people align with my values,’ and call themselves a progressive.”

Supporters of Israel don’t see things that way, of course. And club president Karen Hochberg says it’s wrong to apply litmus tests.

“This is local, grassroots democracy,” she said. “The name is not the ‘14th Ward Progressive Club.’ These are independent human beings.”

But Hochberg and Makoshi agree there are other issues at stake. Makoshi says it would be “self-centered” if Israel supporters put that issue above “people in the district who have been underserved” and feel Lee is the first to represent them. Hochberg, meanwhile, says that along with the issue of Israel, “I’m going to be looking at whether my representative supports Ukraine and working people. Are you going to stand tall for people earning a minimum wage?”

Those are the questions Democrats hope voters ask all year.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.