One of President Bush’s obstacles as he has sought Social Security reform has been the debate he has faced within the Republican Party itself. Some of the reluctance of Republicans to jump on the President’s Social Security bandwagon can be explained by political cold feet, the calculation by members of Congress up for election in 2006 that the electoral risks involved are quite high.
Much of the debate within the party has, however, been driven by serious questions about whether the President’s outline—which is not yet detailed enough to call a "plan"—is the best approach.
Few Republicans oppose the notion of personal accounts on principle. To the contrary, most probably accept the proposition that, if Congress were establishing a retirement program from scratch, personal accounts would be much preferable to the current system. Even fewer Republicans question whether Social Security is coming to a crisis point in the foreseeable future.
The problem for many Republicans is that Bush has not yet convinced them that his proposal will actually avert the crisis, as opposed to shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. As philosophically appealing as personal accounts may be, the transition to them would be quite costly in the short term, and may not appreciably ease the solvency problem even in the long term. Furthermore, many Republicans perceive that the current window of opportunity presented by GOP control of the presidency and Congress may be the only chance they will get to address Social Security. If the President’s proposal goes down because it is too controversial, no one will touch Social Security for years—until the crisis will truly be well upon us, and liberals will have all of the leverage they need to "solve" it by ramming through a gigantic payroll tax increase. Averting that moment, many say, should be the administration’s first priority.
If Democrats were clever, they might exploit these divisions by emphasizing the internal contradictions of Bush’s current position, which proclaims the existence of a crisis and then offers a proposal that seems at best tenuously connected to a remedy. They might offer a remedy of their own that seems to them more consistent with their party’s principles. They might even praise Bush’s good intentions while doing so.
Instead, in the long tradition of bitter former majorities that have only recently come to terms with the fact that they are now the minority, Democrats have become the "no" party. They simply refuse to discuss the subject seriously. Their rhetoric has ratcheted up to levels of demagoguery and hysteria that make George Soros’ and Michael Moore’s 2004 efforts seem like a mere warm-up. Nancy Pelosi urges that Bush is deliberately trying to destroy Social Security. Impassioned letters to the editor, no doubt aided by talking points from AARP, the DNC, or MoveOn.org, decry the Republican attempt to throw old people into the snow or soup lines, or perhaps even snowy soup lines. Will this campaign persuade key voters in the middle, many of whom are looking for honest talk about a tough subject? Perhaps not. It may succeed in making Bush’s job more difficult by solidifying the opinion of Democratic voters against his approach.
But if it does, it will almost surely have another effect, one that may lead to the actual passage of Bush’s proposal, or something resembling it. The more ferocious and undifferentiated—and the more unfair—Democratic criticisms become, the more likely it is that they will have the effect of healing Republican divisions and unifying the GOP behind the President. Media accounts have almost uniformly stressed how important it is for Republicans to attract some Democratic votes—that is to say, how much Republicans need Democratic disunity on this issue. What those accounts have almost uniformly ignored is that, since the Republicans are in the majority, Democrats need Republican disunity even more than Republicans need Democratic disunity. The Democratic attack strategy is virtually guaranteed to drive Republicans closer together, rather than farther apart.
There are two reasons this is likely. One is emotive and visceral, the natural tendency of the beseiged to rally, especially when they believe their beseigers to be irresponsible and unjust. As the Democratic campaign unfolds, there will doubtless be a number of Republicans who set aside their doubts about Bush’s approach just because Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean have sufficiently infuriated them. The other reason is based on cold calculation. At a certain point, Republicans may conclude that Democratic demagoguery has extracted as much cost as it can whether Bush’s idea floats or sinks. The only way to reduce the political cost will be to pass the proposal and let voters see that it is not as bad as the Democrats say. Furthermore, there are other entitlement crises in the offing: Medicaid and Medicare sooner, and Social Security itself later on if nothing is done now. It is manifestly not in the cold, hard interest of Republicans to allow Democrats to succeed with their strategy now. For Republicans to capitulate is only to call down on their heads a virtually unlimited stream of demagoguery for decades to come. Conversely, a Democratic defeat now may pay dividends later when other hard choices have to be made.
Democrats are fond of arguing that the Social Security debate is analogous to the Clinton health care reform debacle, when unified Republican opposition not only stopped ClintonCare cold in its tracks but drove a political revolution that gave the Republicans their congressional majorities. It is not inconceivable that such a thing could indeed happen now. But an alternative analogy is at hand, with very different lessons. In the impeachment debate of 1998-1999, the ham-handed and unsubtle Republican attack strategy drove Democrats together, saving a President who might otherwise have been doomed if even a handful of Democratic senators had been given the breathing space to declare against him early on.
This leaves open the possibility that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, who hold the high cards on Social Security. Democrats, it is clear, have a set of unpalatable choices. They can essentially claim that Social Security is in no danger of insolvency. This is their current tack—indeed this position is the necessary underpinning of a simple "no" strategy—but few Americans believe it, so it can only be sustained by levels of hysteria that promote Republican unity. If Democrats admit that there is a danger, though, they will be forced at some point to say what they will do about it. They can either advocate benefit limits, infuriating AARP and giving Bush cover, or they can advocate big tax increases, infuriating everyone else and giving Bush ammunition. Either way, once Democrats engage—once they accept the issue as legitimate—Bush has won. All that is left are the details, and because he asks for so much up front, few politicians are better than Bush at taking his three-fifths of a loaf as a victory. Democrats are, in a sense, boxed in.
What does Bush need to do to tape the box shut? Keep pressing, and give Republicans a reason to believe the legislative process he has set in motion can address the crisis he correctly predicts. If he adds solvency to the package—or simply lets Republicans in Congress add it, as many are already discussing—he will have a united majority fighting against a united but bankrupt minority. If that happens, don’t bet against him.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.