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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

AP: "The heart of President Bush's plan for Social Security, allowing younger workers to create personal accounts in exchange for a lower guaranteed government benefit, is among the least popular elements with the public, Republican pollsters told House GOP leaders Tuesday."

I've always thought of Jack Kemp as sort of a sad figure. As I wrote a few years ago, "Most Republicans know that enterprise zones and other nostrums presented as alternatives to "failed" liberal social policy are window dressing. Kemp's problem is that he takes the window dressing seriously, but none of his GOP colleagues have the heart to tell him."

Now, he's telling the president to put privatization to a party-line vote. Let the Democrats block it. And then take it to the voters in 2006 ...

If the alternative is tax increases, cutting benefits or making people work longer, the country would be much better off if the Democrats filibuster the president's personal-accounts proposal to death this year than if he gives in to their pigheadedness and takes personal accounts off the table. Let the Democrats obstruct passage of personal accounts, if they have the courage, and then let's go to the American people on the matter in the 2006 elections. That's the way democracy works, and we know that whatever the people decide will be right.


This is part of what I mean by no one having the heart to tell him. The alternative is cutting benefits? Private accounts equal cutting benefits. Any fool realizes that. No less a bamboozler than Rep. Allen Boyd says in his own defense today that "[p]ersonal accounts are a way to let <$Ad$> these workers recoup those [benefit cuts] and likely earn even more for retirement than they could under today's system."

In other words, private accounts are a sort of generational consolation prize for having the social compact broken during your lifetime. Heck, if you're lucky, you might even make it all back.

But on the main point, Kemp is right. Take it to the voters. Yes, I think Republicans will regret it. But you can never really know how an election is going to come off or what the results will be. We should take this to voters because that is what Democracy is about. And as much as the president likes to pretend otherwise, this issue never got a serious airing in 2004. This is an issue, if there ever was one, on which the Democrats should have the courage of their convictions.

Two or three months ago, when Democrats set about trying to thwart the president's plan, there was little assurance they'd be successful. As much as the aim was to win, it was to lose well rather than lose badly -- divided, double-crossed and having caved on principle -- if losing it had to be.

With apologies, let me refer back to what I wrote on December 20th ...

The GOP has the White House and solid majorities in both chambers. If they can hold their troops together, they can write the bill, pass it, and sign it into law before anyone gets another chance at the ballot box. But, as important as winning is in this case (and I'm a good deal more optimistic than many of my friends and colleagues seem to be), winning isn't everything.

If Democrats have to lose this, they must be sure to lose well.

Do they spin and shuffle and whine and sputter on about how bad the whole thing is? Or do they make this into a clear choice -- where Democrats support Social Security for a clear set of reasons rooted in values and policy, and Republicans oppose it?

If the lies about the program's unviability are volubly refuted, the party division made clear, and the reasons why Social Security is good for America are ably argued, then let the chips fall where they may. But if it's all tactics, the outmoded bag of tricks and risk-aversion, playing at the margins and wringing of hands, that will truly be unforgivable.


The same goes for 2006. Don't fret. Take it to the people.

From Adriel Bettelheim of CQ Weekly comes this ...

[T]wo months into his second term, Bush is in one of the toughest political binds of his presidency. He has vowed to use the power of his office to upend a cornerstone of the New Deal and adapt it for his “ownership society” to foster a savings culture. Yet he is standing alone on the construction site, forcing opponents and allies alike to wonder if he’s started something he simply can’t finish.

The situation has essentially left Bush with two options: cut a deal quickly to strengthen the system’s finances, but concede some his philosophical principles; or continue to take the flak but slowly build his case for a more far-reaching overhaul, then dare his opponents to resist as the midterm elections of 2006 approach.

The next few weeks will tell which tack the White House will take, and whether Republicans in Congress will go along.

...

Despite the potential for compromise, there are other signs that Bush and Republican leaders are preparing for a lengthy fight that could spill over into the 2006 election season.


So 2006 it <$NoAd$>is.

Please tell me this isn't a hemorrhoid commercial.

In Rep. Allen Boyd's OpEd piece in today's Tallahassee Democrat, the Dean of the Fainthearted Faction says that private accounts are "preparation, not privatization (emphasis added)."

Two new Social Security plans from Senators Hagel and Bennett, reports the Associated Press. So now there is Tangerine and Strawberry phase-out to be added to plum version the president has already put on the table.

Each raids Social Security to set up private accounts.

Each includes steep cuts in benefits.

Each kicks off phasing out Social Security and replacing it with private accounts.

This is just an intra-Republican conversation about how to best structure phase-out. It can't be of any particular concern or interest to those who don't believe phase-out should happen at all.

Simple Point: Social Security is an insurance program. And the point is not a semantic one. In conventional insurance, the more people participate, the lower the premiums and the more secure the plan. This is particularly so since those who have the least immediate need for the insurance are the most likely to opt out. Just so in Social Security. The more people opt out of the system with private accounts, the greater the costs for those who choose to hold on to their Social Security with its guaranteed benefits. And in this case that translates into either higher taxes or reduced benefits and most likely both. Social Security can only work with near-universal participation.

That is what the push for private accounts is all about. It means the end of Social Security by stages.

(Private health insurance carriers, of course, try to get as many healthy people as possible and as few sick ones, a tactic policy wonks call 'creaming'. But it's the same difference since that only means forcing the costs of the ill off on to government programs like Medicaid or emergency rooms and the like.)

Private Accounts = Ending Social Security. The advocates of private accounts know that. Which Democrats and Republicans will sign on?

David Winston, Republican pollster, Roll Call, March 8th: "Bush, in his State of the Union address, began to lay the predicate for the Social Security discussion. Polling data nearly across the board shows that Bush’s Social Security blitz in the past few weeks has convinced the majority of Americans that Social Security needs fixing now."

CNN/USAToday poll analysis, USAToday, March 2nd: "In early January, Americans divided evenly when asked whether Social Security needs major changes in the next year or two. Now 59% say it doesn't need to be changed right away."

Are Democrats pursuing a shortsighted policy by simply opposing the president's drive to phase out Social Security, as a few are now suggesting?

I feel confident that the answer to that question is, no.

Only I don't think the Democrats are just saying, no. They're staking out a clear position in support of preserving Social Security and its guaranteed benefits rather than phasing it out and replacing it with private accounts.

But inside that question are a host of different subsidiary questions and assumptions. And they're worth discussing. So let me start discussing a few of them now.

First, some suggest that without having a clear counter-proposal on the table, Democrats risk having President Bush outflank them by dropping privatization and claiming a victory with some more limited reform.

But consider what this means and what the objectives are of people who are opposing the president's effort to phase out Social Security.

To my thinking, the prime objective of preventing the president from phasing out Social Security is preventing the president from phasing out Social Security.

The potential opportunities for the Democrats are immense, no doubt. And I hope they materialize as much as anyone. But they are, at the end of the day, secondary. If President Bush were somehow able to abandon privatization and wholesale benefit cuts, embrace a sensible reform package that would enhance the longterm solvency of Social Security and somehow frame this as a political victory, that would be a bummer for Democrats, as Democrats. If he were really successful at spinning this as a success, it would also be unfortunate in that it would give him a renewed ability to pursue other parts of his legislative agenda. But the aim here I think is to prevent the president from phasing out Social Security. So if he chooses to embrace the program and say that's what he wanted all along, I can only say that there are simply worse scenarios I can imagine than that.

On a more concrete level, I don't think the comparison between this debate and the president's turnabout on the Department of Homeland Security is a particularly compelling one. Neither conservatives nor Republicans had any ideological or principled investment in 'Homeland Security' being an office in the White House rather than a cabinet department. Nor did any Republican constituency have a vested interest in his initial stand. This was purely a decision made within the White House, for a series of contigent reasons, but principally to limit congressional oversight and enhance executive branch power. Once the president changed his tune, all the Republicans changed their tunes, because their only agenda all along had been supporting their president on a partisan basis.

The situation with Social Security is very, very different. And the president's room for maneuver is not that great. Any substantial move on the president's part should expose deep fissures within his governing coalition -- a number of which have already appeared.

More globally, I think these 'political' questions (like 'why has the president not been damaged more' or 'how can the Democrats be sure not to be outmaneuvered') are premature. In the past I've written about how Democrats have been weakened politically in recent decades (particularly on national security issues) by placing too much focus on political outcomes and not enough on policy goals. My point here isn't really one of idealism. It is merely to note that an over-emphasis on political outcomes -- and the policy shiftiness required for trimming to secure good ones -- reaches a point of diminishing returns and can become self-defeating. (Pace Mr. Klein, this is not an issue of ideological purity, regardless of what may immediately spring to your mind. It is a matter of deciding on your goal, choosing policies that will acheive it, and then pursuing those policies.)

The truth is that Democrats do have a goal here. There very much is something they stand for. And for those who don't, they should. That is, protecting and enhancing the retirement security of all Americans. Everything that advances that goal should be seen as a victory and everything that diminishes it should be seen as a defeat. At present, through their unity and advocacy, Democrats have significantly reduced the chances of a phase-out bill passing in the 109th Congress. Even at this early stage, that's a big victory.

Again, I am not so naive to say that Democrats should pursue a policy agenda and leave the politics to take care of itself. But consider the following. The hook for some of this second-guessing about Democratic strategy is a memo out a few days ago from James Carville and Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps. And in that memo they argue that the deeper vulnerability for Democrats (and why they are yet to derive greater political returns on Social Security) is what they call "voters' deeper feelings about the Democrats who appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose."

Well, here's the deal. Spin has its limits. You show voters that you have direction and conviction and values principally by having them. And for all the short- and medium-term political handicapping, I believe that's what they are doing right now.

What the Democrats need to do now is think seriously and creatively among themselves about why a program like Social Security is so important and what the principles and priorities gleaned from that examination suggest in terms of other policies they should be advocating and pursuing. As for what they're doing in the political arena right now, I think it's just right.

Later, we'll discuss what the Dems can learn for stage two of the Social Security fight from how they dealt with stage one.

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