One of the Democrats' greatest problems -- far more insidious than many realize -- is their desire to gain the approval and approbation of establishment Washington and its A-list pundits. The habit or inclination is rooted in a political world that ceased to exist 20 or 30 years ago, and even then was wrong-headed. Republicans, on the other hand, have long seen the relationship as fundamentally antagonistic (if not necessarily unfriendly) and have acted accordingly. On balance, that's led to better press treatment because, though they are loathe to admit it, the mix of editors and pundits and talk show hosts respect the treatment.
Democrats, from top to bottom, would do themselves no end of good if they simply acted on the assumption that the Washington establishment is not a constituency they are trying to appeal to or cultivate.
That doesn't mean they should ignore the Washington press. Far from it. They should state their views and demand they be fairly covered. But they should not act on the ingrained assumption that these people are basically like-minded people of shared assumptions and beliefs who can be appealed to on that basis.
All of that is another way of saying they should act like Republicans.
Now, let's take an example: Sebastian Mallaby's column this morning in the Washington Post. As you might expect, it's another entrant in 'Dems will do badly not putting forth their own plan' contest.
Mallaby says Democrats will find themselves in a similar spot to that which they did over Iraq. And though Mallaby puts himself down as a supporter of add-on accounts he says nevertheless that a party that refuses even "to contemplate carve-out accounts is a party that's closed its collective mind."
An implicit thread that runs through Mallaby's article becomes explicit when he says that "progressive Democrats should also admit the truth about Republican proposals: They're a heck of a lot better than leaving Social Security's deficit to get worse."
It does not seem to occur to Mallaby that the people who he is arguing against certainly do not believe this is so and furthermore that they have very strong and principled reasons for believing that -- many of which up-coming guest-blogger Jon Chait will no doubt discuss.
On balance I would class Mallaby's piece (along with a recent column by Matt Miller, for whom I have great respect) as another in a rash of recent examples of what we might call convulsive neoliberalism (a topic to be discussed later). But let's take a moment to think through Mallaby's point on the substance.
Democrats believe that private accounts destroy Social Security. That isn't rhetoric. It's the basis of their entire opposition. A private accounts system removes the guarantees and sharing of risk that are at the heart of social insurance. Agree with that or disagree with that. That's what Democrats believe. And yet to Mallaby ruling out private accounts makes them unserious, negative and irresponsible.
In the old days, keeping an open mind about voting for laws which you believe to be fundamentally wrong or misguiding was called cynicism. But I guess times change.
Mallaby presumably also buys into what is now the consensus assumption that private accounts at a minimum do nothing to improve solvency. On top of that, private accounts intentionally push the financing of Social Security as a defined-benefit program toward dissolution -- though not everyone yet admits this. (One might even add to the equation that in the most similarly-situated country where this change has been attempted, it has been judged so spectacularly unsuccessful more or less across the political spectrum that they are now attempting to go back to a system like ours. Mallaby may have heard of the place: Britain.) But again, opposing private accounts means you're not being serious.
Now, on the politics. The president has yet to introduce any plan. He only says he wants private accounts. That's his one bottom line. He won't come forward with a plan, even though he clearly has one, because he wants to make it more difficult for his opponents to attack him. The president has just been reelected. He has majorities in both houses of congress. He has, on this issue, especially, a favorable media. And in the three months he has been pushing this plan, public support for it has gone from luke-warm to flat cold. This is apparently a bad situation for the Democrats.
Even the premise of Mallaby's logic is flawed. Democrats have a plan for solvency. And everyone has a fairly clear idea what it would be. It'd be something along the lines of Bob Ball's or the Orszag/Diamond plan, a mix of tax increases and benefit cuts to bring the numbers into line -- something that would not require particularly drastic moves on either side.
What the Democrats haven't done is to formally get behind a concrete proposal, which is to say that they haven't done exactly what the president hasn't done.
And why should they? Every pol with a brain knows there is no point putting up a detailed plan which makes for a ready target when your opponents are in the midst of getting mauled over their idea. That may not go over well in civics class or at the Post editorial board. But it is straight politics as it is always played and for which no apologies are necessary. But in Mallaby's view, despite the extremely disadvantaged position Democrats find themselves in in Washington today, having a hand on not one lever of power: they should nonetheless sacrifice what they believe in order to be entirely indifferent to which political strategy will be advance their principles.
What that advice makes clear comes out in other parts of his piece --his relative indifference to the issues under consideration. You'll note that in various parts of his piece he lauds President Bush and congressional Republicans for selflessly putting themselves out there to raise the cry about the coming disasters to face Security Security. The president, he says, is "out there touring the country, trying to open people's minds to the necessity of reform; meanwhile, Republican members of Congress are sticking their necks out with detailed overhaul proposals."
Though he says he supports add-on accounts, it is also clear that he buys into most if not all of the essential premises of the privatization argument, even down to a few of the bogus statistics. To him, having private accounts inside or outside Social Security is basically an organizational matter on the order of deciding whether one might raise the retirement age one year or shave a bit off indexing of benefits to improve the program's solvency. In other words, an important question but hardly a matter of transcendent consequence of principle.
At the end of the day, the fundamental issue, at least as the Democrats see it (and as we're learning, much of the public) is simply invisible to Mallaby. He can't get his head around the notion that people really see private accounts as that big a deal. And that shapes his view of the entire matter. Because of that he can't see that the debate we're having isn't about solvency but about whether the country will make the historic decision to get rid of the Social Security system and replace it with something very different. In that debate, Democrats have a position that is straightforward, on the table, and emphatically clear. It's Social Security. Period. Democrats want to keep the current system. That's very clear.
Mallaby is living in a mental world of premises and assumptions (both political and in policy terms) which no Democrat should even remotely be a part of.
Any Democrat who would be rattled by Mallaby's reasoning would have to be one who is petrified of the idea of suffering some political setback somewhere, somehow, for some reason, even though all available evidence points in the opposite direction.
Mallaby's political advice strikes me as silly. But if it could be shown to me that defending Social Security was a risky proposition politically, it wouldn't affect my thinking at all. Some things are so important they're worth losing over. And when political parties realize that is generally when they start winning. A political party that is scared to run risks over matters of grand importance even when the public volubly says it has their backs is a party that scarcely deserves to exist.