Should the Democrats come forward with their own 'plan' on Social Security? That's certainly what Republicans are saying. And it's a cry taken up now by many establishment pundits. Indeed, the strategy memo put out last week by Stan Greenberg and James Carville was widely seen as buying into that line of reasoning, though I think that's a misinterpretation (which I'll discuss later.)
The shortest version of an answer is simply 'no.' But I think there are really two questions here. And it's worth taking the time to distinguish them.
Not only do I think you could find very few Democratic politicians or strategists who think it's time for the Dems to step forward with a concrete counter-proposal on Social Security; if you were armed with truth serum, I'm certain you'd find no Republican strategists or pols who believe it is in the Democrats' interests to do so.
You needn't go any further to figure this out than the fact that the president has yet to step up and put a concrete proposal on the table. Until he does, Republicans who make this argument deserve nothing more than laughter. The White House has rather preferred to elaborate the president's proposal through a series of leaks so that he will always have some level of deniability when anyone tries to point out how bad a deal his plan would be for most Americans. When the president's plan is sinking like an anvil only a fool would think it was a wise course to put forward a more detailed proposal to distract from the collapse of the president's plan.
Another reason it makes no sense is that it buys into the essential dishonesty of the president's political argument -- namely, that we're now debating how to 'save' Social Security: He has a plan. So the Dems should have one too.
But, as we've argued repeatedly here, that's not what we're debating. As press commentary has belatedly but increasingly awakened to, what we're now debating is whether to keep Social Security or to replace it with private accounts. There's no sense -- as the Senate Dems have now rightly made clear --to getting into a debate over the details of how to strengthen the current program while we're still debating whether it should be preserved. Indeed, no debate over solvency is possible until an unequivocal agreement is made that the program will be preserved.
But there's another part of this 'have a plan' argument that I think was what the Greenberg/Carville memo was trying to get at. That is this: For the medium-term and long-term, this debate on Social Security provides Democrats with an opportunity far richer and more important than whatever political rewards may be reaped in 2006. It provides them with an opportunity -- perhaps best to say, a pivot point -- to begin explaining their larger and entirely distinct vision for where the country should go in the coming years. For years, for a host of reasons, Democrats have been afraid to do that. Now they should. This isn't a right-left issue within the Democratic party. It's more to do with the relative freedom of being an opposition party and how much President Bush has no exposed the GOP real values.
Now, I know I've dealt here in a lot of generalities. And I want to push the site in the direction of an expanded discussion of these questions in the coming weeks. But for the moment, just on the question of Social Security, let's say this: People who oppose the president's plan to phase-out Social Security should keep hammering on his proposal non-stop, from now until the ballot boxes close in California on election day in 2006. They should press the members of Congress who are defending it and yet don't have the guts to actually endorse it (folks like the Count and Rep. Ferguson in New Jersey). But while it would be foolish in the extreme to get baited into putting forth their own solvency plan, hammering the president for wanting to phase-out Social Security should go hand and hand with a discussion (amongst Democrats themselves, as much as anything) of what the broader Democratic vision for retirement security is. That goes beyond Social Security. It involves explaining just why it is Democrats are so determined to keep Social Security intact. It involves explaining how we can help middle class families save more for retirement. It means putting on the table the disastrous state of private-sector pensions.
This is a golden opportunity for Democrats to start explaining their vision of where we should be going as a society and how it differs from that of the Republicans'. That's what an opposition party does.