The Facts Machine

"And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide"

Monday, June 20, 2005


Today's Chronicle has a nice little game reset on where the Social Security debate stands.
President Bush has gone from threatening Democratic lawmakers that they'll suffer politically for not supporting his Social Security overhaul to cajoling Republican lawmakers with promises of campaign help if they do.

Neither tactic is working. Bush's poll numbers continue to sink, driven in part by his plan to add private accounts and reduce benefits in the giant retirement program.

Democrats appear on the verge of scoring a huge political victory over Bush by defeating what had been the centerpiece domestic policy of his second term.

Bush's hopes of salvaging even small private accounts now rest entirely on the two Republican leaders of the committees in charge of Social Security: former college professor Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, the shrewd and unpredictable chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who is a master of the tax code and entitlement programs, and blunt-spoken Iowa farmer Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Both men face unbroken Democratic opposition and disagreement and resistance within their own party.

Nonetheless, the White House is relying on Thomas to craft a bill that contains some version of private accounts, which Republican leaders can then push through the House, where they control the agenda.

Grassley faces the filibuster rules of the Senate, where Republicans hold 55 votes, but need 60 votes to overcome the blocking maneuver by Democrats.

As bad as the polls look, Bush shows no sign of backing off.

"I spoke with several people at the White House this morning, and I just got off the phone with an aide to a senior member of the House leadership, all of whom assure me that the House is moving forward," Michael Tanner, a leading private-account advocate at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, said late last week.

"As far as the White House goes, the White House is not seeking an exit strategy. The president still plans to be out there at least once a week, forever if necessary, to talk about this," Tanner said. "They are not pulling back any of their intentions at all."
I'm not sure if I would be as triumphant about the defeat of the Bush plan as the article says Dems are "on the verge" of being. There were rumblings a couple of weeks ago that Bush may, as a tactic, ditch the private accounts and go after a "solvency"-oriented plan (in other words, massive benefit cuts to turn Soc Sec into little more than a welfare program that can be cut even further in the future). I was skeptical about this taking place, since given the highly ideological nature of the administration I thought it was unlikely that Bush would remove the turkey from the thanksgiving platter that is his SS plan.

Something else to note is that we don't really have too much of a precedent to know exactly how this debate is going to end. This is really only the second time in Bush's time in office that we've had a dominant debate over a piece of domestic legislation. The first was the 2001 round of tax cuts, which Bush flogged mercilessly during the 2000 campaign and was, for the most part, unwilling to compromise on. I think looking at that debate may be instructive for how his private accounts will fare in the coming months.

February through May, 2001. Bush was coming off a modest electoral honeymoon. In spite of losing the popular vote, he was given something of a pass by the press, who fostered a general consensus that there was a mandate for some kind of tax cut. He insisted that Congress pass versions of a tax cut that were as close to what he wanted as possible ($1.6 billion, and that's a floor, not a ceiling), and to do so he was willing to push at least one moderate lawmaker (Jeffords) over the edge. The Democrats, sensing defeat, snuck in an amendment (the $300 and $600 rebate checks) which was more to their liking, only to see Bush and the Republicans take credit for it. We then learned, via Tom Daschle, that the Republican smear machine is capable of applying mud to anybody.

So how does the current political climate compare to that of tax cut season 2001? Not as good for Bush and the other privatizers. Bush is quickly quacking like a lame duck, as his power to influence both the electorate and Congress is fading fast. Bush's approval on Social Seucirty is scraping bottom; the highest recent poll I've seen is the 37% Ipsos has him at. Moderate Republicans are either jumping ship or talking "exit strategy". Bush is making empty threats that border on the absurd ("threatening Democratic lawmakers that they'll suffer politically for not supporting his Social Security overhaul"), and for once the Democrats are showing some discipline and backbone, to the point that any bill including private accounts would meet a quick, cloture-induced death on the Senate floor.

The divide-and-conquer tactics of Bush's Iraq and WOT politics don't translate well to the Social Security debate. Karl Rove's buddies at USA-Next didn't make the slightest dent when they launched their anti-AARP smear campaign. Calling a group that includes in its membership many Normandy beach-stormers (and their friends) anti-troops isn't gonna fly.

As I've discussed before in this space, the attempt by Bush to phase out Social Security was their big shot, their decaptiation attempt; if they could chop off the head of the Democrat-created welfare state, the body would go much easier. Problem is, we were ready for him. We know what this guy would say...



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