Time for Bill to step up to the plate.
As we noted last night, with fewer and fewer members of the Fainthearted Faction in play, the White House is looking for crossover Democrats from among those who have already departed from among the living. Namely, to start with, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, whom the Washington Post says this morning the White House is looking to to provide 'bipartisan' support. (One valuable part of the Post article is reporter Jonathan Weisman's discussion of new evidence that even Moynihan, a genuine supporter of private accounts, himself felt used and strong-armed by the White House on the Social Security Commission he nominally co-chaired.)
But they're also trying to invoke their old favorite, President Bill Clinton.
On this let's get right down to essentials.
Here the White House is hanging its hat on Clinton's 1998 slogan of 'save Social Security first' and a handful of times -- I've only seen two but presumably there are more -- in which he used the word 'crisis' in describing Social Security's funding challenges.
According to the Post, the line the White House has seized on is one from 1998 in which Clinton said "This fiscal crisis in Social Security affects every generation."
So, what to say about this?
First, a few points on the merits.
Apparently, the Bush White House hasn't learned its lesson on cherry-picking. As the article notes, what Clinton went on to say in that speech is that Congress should not spend away the budget surplus on new programs or new tax cuts but rather reserve those surpluses so as to cushion the burden of whatever funding shortfalls might arrive in the future in Social Security.
The point of the 'save Social Security first' rhetoric was the same: practice responsible budgeting now to prepare for whatever challenges Social Security may face down the road. That makes sense because, as we've discussed on earlier occasions, aggregate national debt really is a zero-sum-game. The more debt we build up now, or create for the future in the form of structural deficits, limits our freedom of maneuver down the road. And nobody is saying that Social Security is in perfect shape from now to eternity. Fixes may need to be made over the coming decades. And Clinton's approach of getting the nation's fiscal house in order to be able to deal with whatever challenges arose was a sound one.
Needless to say, the major legislative accomplishments of President Bush's first term was to pass huge new tax cuts which have knocked the country way, way back into deficits which have endangered not only Social Security but the long-term stability of the economy itself.
Another point to keep in mind is that six or seven years ago, the outlook for Social Security was actually different from what it is now. Each successive report of the Social Security Trustees has presented a rosier picture than the one before it.
Yet, the biggest problem on the merits with this argument the White House is trying to make, is a simple one of rhetoric, action and context.
In the course of the Iraq debate, the White House repeatedly carted out cherry-picked Bill Clinton quotes in which Clinton said Iraq and Saddam were a 'threat' or a 'looming threat' or has WMDs or is something that the US would eventually have to deal with, etc. And from that the White House reason, 'Well, look, Clinton said Saddam was a threat too. So he agreed with us. So what's the problem?' Or 'He agreed with us; he just wasn't man enough to act', etc.
The problem is that you can't guage the meaning of a statement outside of its context of rhetoric or action. You can't equate a) calling something a threat and saying the response should be containment and continued scrutiny and b) calling something a threat and then bum-rushing the country into a war that costs a thousand American lives, hundreds of billions of dollars and a good bit of US global leadership all in exchange for finding that there was no threat there at all. And the difference between what Bill Clinton said and did on Social Security in 1997-98 compared to what President Bush is doing on Social Security today is pretty similar to the difference in what both did and said over Iraq.
Yet, having said all this -- and I think the White House's argument is pretty silly on the face of it -- just as he did in Iraq, Bill Clinton used rhetoric on Social Security that greased the skids for President Bush. He and his advisors couldn't have known then that their successors in office would be such hucksters and con-men on these two issues. But then the consequences of our actions are often unclear to us at the time we act.
If the White House is really intent on pulling another Iraq stunt on Social Security, trying to cherry-pick old Bill Clinton quotes to scam the American public on their Social Security phase-out plans, then it's Clinton's responsibility to step up to the plate and knock that new con right out of the park.
No, he shouldn't be the Dems' spokesperson on Social Security. But this is a particular ploy he's uniquely positioned to discredit. And this one's his responsibility.
In any case, I hear he's a pretty good communicator.