Focused as I've been on the Kerik meltdown, I've given little attention to what will certainly be the defining issue of the next two years, for Democrats as much as the president: Social Security. Specifically, whether to phase out the program or maintain it as the anchor of retirement security in the United States.
As Paul Krugman, Kevin Drum and many others have been making clear in recent days, the entirety of the president's argument is based on a series of well-constructed lies. The president's advisors were never more truthful than they were when they compared the coming round of disinformation and fear-mongering to their public campaign in support of the Iraq war in 2002.
The Social Security "crisis" is manufactured; there is no crisis. To the extent there are long-term financing problems, the president's plan will gravely worsen them. The problem we face isn't over Social Security, which continues to run up huge surpluses (just as it was intended to under the early-80s reform), but that our non-Social Security budget continues to run massive structural deficits. Or rather, it has returned to running massive structural deficits after getting into the black in the late 1990s through the combined exertions of a Democratic president and a Republican congress. Social Security isn't the problem, but rather George W. Bush's reckless fiscal policy.
In any case, as I say, the whole thing is lies. This isn't about the program's problems but about its success. That's why the president and his allies want to phase it out. It's not about financing but about ideology.
I'm going to try to dive more deeply into the dishonesty of the president's plan and explanations of different aspects of the debate, though much of it will simply be steering readers to the most concise and straightforward explanations from other sites and sources.
Much of what we'll be focusing on here is strategy: how to defeat the president's plan, which will rip-off men and women across the country who, in President Clinton's much mocked but still apt phrase, "work hard and play by the rules."
So, a few points on strategy.
One thing that Democrats must understand is that they cannot win this battle legislatively. At one level what I mean by that is simply the math we can all see. The president has comfortable majorities in both chambers and in his first term (when he was a minority president and had smaller majorities) he commanded historic levels of party discipline. If he can hold those caucuses together, he can pass this and sign it and that's it. Doesn't matter what Democrats do.
This is, of course, obvious, as simple as the math, as I noted. But the implications for strategy are not necessarily that obvious.
As I wrote a month ago, the Democrats have to start seeing themselves as a true party of opposition in large part because of the way President Bush has reshaped the capital into something much more like a parliamentary system. There's no point in Democrats trying to improve legislation at the margins, because they won't be given any real opportunity to do so. The logic of the situation dictates coming up with an alternative plan not only to make the differences clear to voters now but to set the issue stage for the 2006 and 2008 elections.
So point one is party unity. The Democrats don't just need to keep their caucuses overwhelmingly together on this issue. They need to avoid even a single defection in the House or the Senate. From what I hear from knowledgable sources this is already pretty close to doable in the House; and probably no more than three or perhaps four are even in play in the Senate.
Such unity has the obvious advantage of giving Republicans less breathing room in putting together majority votes in both houses. But it does much more than that. Making the elimination of Social Security a strictly Republican gambit raises the political stakes dramatically. Many Republicans will be far more cautious without bipartisan cover. Democrats must deny them even the thinnest of fig leaves. Making it a strictly Republican affair will also provide valuable clarity in the coming election, rather than the muddled picture created by Democratic defections on the 2001 tax bill.
Still another important benefit is the boon it will give to Democratic morale and energy in opposition. The coming debate over Social Security could become an engine for unity or disunity for Democrats. And the leaders of the party should be doing everything they can right now to lay the groundwork for making it the former rather than the latter. And party unity is the place to start.
If everyone isn't on the same page, that disunity will exacerbate the NewDem/Labor-Liberal divide -- something Dems simply can't afford right now. If they can achieve unity, they can demonstrate to themselves that they have points of common purpose that transcend their divisions. And that realization will itself make those divisions more manageable.
Luckily, such unity should not be that hard to achieve -- for two reasons. First, very few Democrats support privatization. Second, those relatively few in the centrist wing of the party who are open to the idea in the abstract are scared off by the budget-busting debt the president wants to take on to pay for his plan.
The worst thing that can happen for Democrats is that a few of their members of congress get played for fools by signing on to President Bush's plan in the hopes that they can secure some small improvements in the legislation or reflected glory for themselves -- slightly less money carved out of Social Security, bumping up the payroll tax cap, etc. Whatever miniscule benefits could be achieved in such a fashion would be greatly outweighed by the way that it would lessen the chances for fixing the damage after the next election.
The question will be how to enforce discipline at the margins. And here Democrats should take a page from the Republican playbook in 1994 (on health care) and 1998 (on impeachment).
I think Democrats should consider pulling together the major funders of the party, the official committees, the major organizations, basically the entire infrastructure of the Democratic party and making clear to individual members that if they sign on to the president's plan to phase out Social Security, those various institutions and individuals won't fund their campaigns. Not in 2006, not ever.
Similar committments can come from voters, activists and volunteers. And free rein to primary challengers. If a couple folks lose their seats because of underfunding or tough primaries, so be it. (In a subsequent post, we'll discuss how this compares to what the House Republicans did in 1998).
It's that important. And there is an importance to unity on this issue that transcends the particular debate over Social Security.
Next, as we've discussed before, this isn't a debate about 'reform', 'privatization' or 'saving' Social Security. It's about phasing out the Social Security program, or not. Framing it any other way concedes half the battle before the fighting even begins.
(There is a subsidiary question here of whether Dems take a stand-pat stance in general, or come up with their own 'plan' to go up against the president's. That's a question we'll return to.)
Third, beware the risks of arguments about risk.
Republicans want to make this an argument about people who believe in markets and people who don't. That's not true. But Democrats can make it seem true by framing too much of the debate on 'risky scheme' lines. Letting the argument be framed that way is a losing proposition because most Americans instinctively believe in markets and largely for good reason.
The issue here isn't markets. Most Democrats favor plans that would make it easier for middle- and lower-income families to save and invest money for retirement. That would make the overall retirement picture much better.
The issue is balance and commonsense. A breadwinner with dependents who gets a lump sum salary at the beginning of the year and invests it all in a few hot start-ups doesn't believe in the market; he or she is just a fool. A wise investment portfolio is balanced between riskier and more conservative investments. The best way to make this argument (and the most valid one) is to make it clear that Democrats want people to be able to invest. That really is the path to wealth. But Social Security is different. It is, among other things, a baseline of guaranteed retirement security and income for everyone. You get it whether you retire in boom times or bust times, whether life has dealt you good cards or bad cards. The two things are simply different.
A related danger is placing too much, or rather an incorrect emphasis on the windfall of money Wall Street would make because of phasing out Social Security. This is true, of course. And it helps impugn the motives of those pushing for the abolition of the program. But fundamentally it doesn't matter.
If privatization really were a good thing for most Americans, the fact that some people would make money on it wouldn't be a reason to oppose it. The reason to oppose it is that it's a very bad deal for most Americans. The fact that lots of Wall Streeters will get rich racking up fees on these tiny accounts only serves to show why they're pushing so hard for it.
Again, it's a matter of emphasis that I fear too many Democrats miss. Focusing too much on the Wall Street windfall risks placing the emphasis of the Dems opposition on something that is, fundamentally, beside the point. It can also make the opposition appear to be based simply in bitterness or resentment.
And this brings me to my final point. Focusing on the Wall Street stuff evades the key issue. And Democrats have built up a habit of doing that a lot on many issues -- thinking they can skirt against the wind, play up ancillary issues, and generally muddle through without facing up to the heart of the matter. The reasons they've developed this habit are many and for another post. But in the case of Social Security it is almost sure to lead to defeat.
This isn't about financing. It's about whether Americans get to keep Social Security, a program of guaranteed retirement insurance, which unlike the other key elements of a good retirement plan -- investments and pensions -- cannot be taken away.
Social Security has been overwhelmingly popular for well over half a century. Nothing suggests that popularity has diminished, save scare-mongering telling people that they won't be able to enjoy its benefits.
Democrats should run into this fight, not away from it.