A quick look at some polling data gives a clear idea of why the Fainthearted Faction keeps shrinking and the Conscience Caucus keeps getting bigger.
Start with the most recent Gallup poll just out on Wednesday and go to the most basic question: Private accounts good idea or bad idea?
55% say bad idea; 40% say good idea. They asked the same question a month ago and the numbers were identical. 17% of the public believes that there is a Social Security 'crisis'. (55% say 'major problems' and 23% 'minor problems'.)
When asked about other steps that might be taken to shore up the system, benefit cuts for people under 55 -- which is part of the Bush plan -- are 29% for, 67% against. Raising, or actually doing away with the cap on payroll taxes, gets 67% for, 30% against, something the White House appears to have ruled out.
(Note: The White House has categorically ruled out 'raising payroll taxes'. But there has been at least a bit of ambiguity about whether they would consider raising the cap 'raising taxes' or if that only applies to rates.)
Down the line the numbers are not good for the president or the supporters of phasing out Social Security. Not terrible, mind you, but in the negative on almost every count.
What makes those numbers more telling is that, as near as I can tell, the Gallup questionnaire did not include the one follow-up question that consistently sends support for privatization plummeting -- namely, transition costs and trillions of dollars of borrowing.
For example, in the Washington Post/ABC poll from December 22nd, the initial query on private accounts yielded a respectable 53% level of support. But when they followed up and asked people whether they would support it if the transition costs might reach as high as $2 trillion, support dropped to about 25%, with 69% against.
To say that the bottom dropped out of support for private accounts would, I think, be a fair characterization of that shift.
This dynamic is underscored by a new article of poll analysis out Thursday from the Post. It's an important article painting a complex picture of public attitudes, with potential avenues of advantage for both sides. But one point that comes through clearly is that supporters of the president's plan tend to drop their support in the face of objections much more readily than the president's opponents are swayed by his arguments.
The key passage from the article reads ...
That [transition] cost estimate proved to be the most effective of four arguments against Bush's proposal tested in the polls. While 56 percent said they support a plan for individual investment accounts, more than half of those said they would be less likely to do so after hearing the estimate. More than four in 10 supporters wavered when they heard that personal accounts would not, by themselves, reduce the financial problems facing Social Security.
Those opposed to Bush's plan were consistently more resistant to changing their view -- about one in four did -- when confronted with four arguments supporting his proposal.
In other words, support drops dramatically when supporters are pressed with even the most elemntary and indisputable problems with the president's approach. I say 'indisputable' because White House itself has conceded that private accounts won't assure the solvency of Social Security. One might have made that question far sharper by noting that private accounts will actually accelerate the onset of the programs financial problems. On the other hand, people who are opposed tend to remain opposed or, in the not altogether flattering wording of the article, show themselves "consistently more resistant to changing their view."
One might say this is a pretty fair characterization of the disunity and wavering today among congressional Republicans and the unity of the Democrats.