I'd like to pretty or butter this one up a bit; but I think it's more important not to beat around the bush. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) of Illinois went on Tim Russert's show Sunday to talk about Social Security, among other things, and it wasn't a pretty sight.
(You can read the transcript here and decide whether you think that's a fair judgment. Search for the phrase "looming fiscal crisis" and read from there. The tech-smart folks at C&L have also put the segment online, so you can view it here too.)
The Democratic party doesn't have many people in it smarter or more articulate than Rahm Emanuel. But smart people can embrace bad strategy. And bad strategy usually makes for bad rhetoric and bad results.
One problem with his performance was that he pretty inexplicably didn't remember that a quote Russert kept hitting him with was a quote from his old boss, Bill Clinton. How he didn't catch that given that one of the dates referenced in the quote pegged it as a statement from the late 1990s I don't know. But anyone can mess up on live TV.
The more troubling lapses were strategic.
There's been a debate going on amongst Democrats about whether it's better strategy to a) confront President Bush with an alternative reform proposal or b) call him on his scare-mongering and lies and make the case that Social Security is right for America.
The policy differences among Democrats aren't too great. There's a fairly broad consensus on improving access to individual investment accounts on top of Social Security. And even those who don't care much for the idea aren't particularly opposed to it. (For what it's worth, I think it's a very good idea.) So, again, there's little real disagreement on underlying policy. The difference is over the strategy to use in this emerging debate.
On the surface both arguments have points to recommend them. But on Russert's show, Emanuel, who is a proponent of Strategy A managed to make a very strong case for Strategy B.
If you read the transcript of Emanuel's exchange with Russert, he again and again reiterates his central argument that Democrats believe in private accounts on top of Social Security while President Bush wants them to be part of Social Security.
Yet, if you read the exchange, a viewer wouldn't come away with any particular sense of why this makes any difference or why they should care. I drive a Ford, you drive a Chevy; you say tomAto, I say tomAHto, etc. Who cares?
When Russert continued pressing the question of whether there is a Social Security 'crisis', Emanuel said 'no' but that there is a 'retirement savings' crisis which might be solved with the add-on accounts -- a universal 401k -- that Democrats favor.
So at this point we have a distinction between private accounts in Social Security and out of Social Security -- a distinction, the significance of which, is not at all clear. And then on the question of whether there's a crisis, we don't have the president's crisis, but a difference crisis -- one in savings for retirement.
As I said before, in each case, if you generously drill down to what Emanuel means in policy terms, he's making decent points. If there's any crisis in retirement security, it's not Social Security. The problem is that those things that are supposed to go along with Social Security (the three legs of the stool), private savings and pensions, are disappearing. But at the level of what he's actually saying, all the viewer gets is that Democrats and Republicans both believe in private accounts, with some distinction over whether they're in or out of Social Security. And both think there's a crisis; but the Democrats seem to have a different name for it.
That's a battle I guarantee you the Democrats will lose -- if for no other reason then that Emanuel gives the viewer no clear sense why the president's plan is a) bad for America, b) phases out Social Security or c) is based on a series of falsehoods. In so many words, he fails to attack the president's plan. And if there's nothing worth attacking, why bother to oppose it?
These, in so many words, are the problems. But I think we can expand the point to a broader critique. Folks like Emanuel don't seem to have absorbed the reality of the Democratic party's status as a party of opposition.
Here's what I mean.
When Bill Clinton was president, I'm not sure he had any bigger supporter than me. But many of those who worked with him in the White House got into a mindset that can easily lead Democrats astray in our present circumstances. Clinton's critics often knock him for his reliance on tactical positioning, on tacking back and forth against the wind, on finding the small rhetorical or policy distinctions, the sweet spots that could upend his opponents.
But when you hold the White House those approaches really can work -- because you have three levers of power, the executive branch, the bully pulpit and the veto pen. That power gives you control over the terms and pace of the debate. And those let you bring clever tactics and fancy footwork into play.
But the Democrats don't have any of that today. They're completely excluded from power in Washington. The only effective power they have is the ability to deny the president the cover of bipartisanship in enacting his agenda when his agenda conflicts with their fundamental principles.
The failure to understand this becomes clear later in the segment when Russert asks Emanuel for specifics about the Democrats' plan and he repeats the president's mantra about not negotiating with yourself.
This is almost a sad moment. And a similar thought was raised by Clintonite Gene Sperling a few days ago when he said Democrats needed to create a "framework for engagement" with President Bush on retirement security.
But Rahm and Gene, which part of this movie haven't you seen? Rahm doesn't have to worry about negotiating with himself because he isn't going to be negotiating at all. This isn't 1995 or 1996 when Clinton could dance around Newt Gingrich or hoodwink him with rhetoric and policy jujitsu. To the extent this gets down to a discussion of the nitty-gritty, Bush will just roll right over the Democrats.
And in a sense, why shouldn't he? One doesn't have to see this as a matter of President Bush's excessive partisanship or divisive governing style. True negotiations are seldom possible when there is a fundamental disparity in power between the two sides negotiating, as there is today between President Bush and his Democratic opposition.
When I think about Clintonite tactics and their one-time practitioners who are still in the game, I'm often reminded of a game of 'King of the Hill'. There are tactics that work great when you're at the top of the hill that aren't worth a damn when you're at the bottom. And there's nothing sadder than seeing someone at the bottom of the hill using top of the hill tactics. Actually, there is something sadder: when that person is you.
In a sense, Clinton used the powers of the presidency to create space for what is simply 'politics' -- the organized tussle of debating and changing minds. But most of President Bush's major legislation has gone through without 'politics' in this sense ever even happening. In almost every case, President Bush had his bill, he had compliant majorities in each chamber, and he just passed it. So long as there was not overwhelming and spirited public opposition it just went through. 'Politics', in the sense I've described it, seldom even got off the ground since it didn't particularly matter which way the public debate went.
No one is saying that Democrats should meet the president with effrontery. That would be counterproductive. Nor should the Democrats be unwilling to work together if President Bush supports legislation that doesn't go against Democrats' fundamental principles. But President Bush has made explicitly clear in this case that his proposal will go against those principles and he's made clear over the last four years that he has little interest in true legislative give-and-take.
Given those facts and given that the Democrats hold neither the White House nor either chamber of Congress, the only power the Democrats have is their power to state the facts clearly and withhold the legitimacy they alone can impart through providing bipartisan cover. This isn't rude or political. If Democrats believe private accounts are wrong they should say so and vote so. No voter expects politicians to vote for bills they believe are flatly wrong.
Is there a Social Security crisis? No.
There's no reason to cook up some other 'crisis' to provide some sort of silly balance.
Is the president being honest about private accounts? No.
Will Democrats support a phase-out bill with private accounts? No.
Should the Democrats have an alternative beyond just saying 'no'. Yes, they should. And they have a very good one. But it is very much the secondary part of the strategy. And their alternative can only be comprehensible and effective if the primary part is made sufficiently clear: that Democrats don't believe Social Security is in crisis and that whatever long-term funding challenges it faces do not require a fundamental revision of the structure of the program, let alone phasing it out as President Bush wants to do.
This is what opposition parties do. State their contrary vision where they have one, vote their principles on matters of fundamental political difference, and build a clear contrast on key issues which they can take to the voters in the next election. All the more so when the facts and the people's values are on their side. That's democracy.