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.