Both the Times and the Post on Saturday run follow-up pieces on Speaker Denny Hastert's (R) interview in yesterday's Chicago Tribune. The Times piece, by Robin Toner, focuses more on the public disagreement between the Speaker's office and Ken Mehlman at the RNC over how ready the public is for privatization and thus, by implication, how good a job the president has done at selling it.
The Post piece, by Mike Allen, probes what I think is the more telling development.
You'll remember, only a few weeks ago, the House Republicans were telling the president that they wanted him to put forward a specific proposal and then go out and sell it to the public. Only then would they be willing to put their necks on the line to support it. The Senate GOP, or at least key Republican senators, thought differently. They wanted the president to draw back and let them take the lead rather than polarizing the debate by campaigning for it aggressively himself.
Now, as Allen explains, the House GOP has shifted over to the Senate position.
Here is one of the key passages ...
White House and congressional GOP tacticians said yesterday that they now see little chance that Bush will issue a detailed plan for partially privatizing Social Security the way he released specific proposals for tax cuts and other major initiatives.
Key leaders including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) have urged Bush to speak in general terms about altering Social Security and to leave it to Congress to develop specific proposals.
This contrasts with an earlier Capitol Hill strategy of letting the president take the lead -- and take most of the political heat -- in pushing for changes in the politically sensitive Social Security program.
What this means is pretty clear. The House Republicans have seen the Bamboozlepalooza Tour and they don't think it's working. They have to run next year; the president doesn't. And as long as their fate is tied to the Social Security phase-out freight train, they want their
hands on the brakes. That gives them control over the tempo and content of the legislative process and the freedom, if and when they want, to simply let the whole thing die.
This development raises a point, which has been lurking in the background through this debate, but has received too little attention. As usual for the president, this battle over Social Security was a war of choice. No one in Congress chose it; he
chose it. But once the issue was joined, the White House and the Democrats had a paradoxical commonality of interest in how it would play out.
Let me explain what I mean.
The Democrats didn't choose this fight. It was thrust on them. Because of their core values as a party, the stakes were extraordinarily high. Lose Social Security and the loss is staggering, almost total, given the role it plays in American society. Columnists talk about Roosevelt and legacies and the like. And there's some of that, to be sure, particularly on a sentimental level. But the crux of the matter isn't who created Social Security. It's what the program is
and what the Democrats' values are
, even if sometimes they need reminding. It's that
At the same time, if they could turn back the president's phase-out crusade, the upside would be almost as promising as the downside would be bleak. As it did with health care, a major defeat for a president on privatization could put the policy on ice for years, possibly for the rest of our lifetimes. And the political benefits of defeating the president are too obvious to require explanation.
The White House is in a similar position. If the president could privatize Social Security he would become a truly transformative president, for good or ill. Few presidents get to work on the very architecture of society and state. It's a legacy on steroids.
On the other hand, if the president failed he would have started his second term with his first major political defeat as president and one that came after winning reelection and
expanding his majorities in both chambers of congress. It would likely shape the rest of his presidency.
For the White House and
the Democrats it's really close to all or nothing, all the chips on the table, with very big upsides and very big downsides.
The odd man out here is the congressional GOP. For them, the calculus is entirely different, particularly in the House.
They've got a good thing going -- seemingly durable majorities, K Street disciplined and incorporated into the DeLay Machine. Sure, many Republicans, all things being equal, believe in privatization. But if it happens it'll be the president's victory, not theirs. It won't expand their majorities or bring them campaign cash they don't already get. A win on this issue, in the most hardboiled terms, is really pretty much a wash. There's just not much in it for them.
Losing, on the other hand, all
comes out of their hide. Though a defeated president might be weakened, he'd still be president. Some of them would be out of a job. Their very majorities could be in danger.
A few years ago the congressional Republicans may have had enough ideological fire to yearn for this fight and run the risk. But no more.
These dynamics, I think, shape the structure of the whole debate, the whole contest. And if the Democrats can play it correctly, it's the president's achilles heel.
As we've noted a number of times, the power of an engaged and disciplined presidency, with congressional majorities at hand, is awesome. So this is still far, far from over. But if Allen is right about this change in thinking with the House Republicans, we may have just seen one of the first key shoes drop.