How You Lose Can Be More Important Than How You Win

I want to take the liberty of reprinting something I wrote 14 years ago, in December of 2004. The political and legislative context were quite different. This was right after the 2004 election after President Bush had announced his intention to partially privatize Social Security. Yet certain dynamics remain unchanged …

In politics as in life, victory or success is seldom entirely within our control. As we noted a few days ago, the Democrats can’t win this legislatively. They don’t have the votes. 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.