The latest twist in the Social Security debate isn't progressive
benefit cuts or add-on accounts. It's a growing belief among
Democrats that the party needs to offer an alternative to the
president's proposal. Proponents of this view argue that, while
George W. Bush may not have sold many voters on privatization, he
has begun convincing them there's a crisis, which Democrats could
be blamed for ignoring. At first glance, this logic seems so uncompelling that you're at a
loss to explain how anyone could embrace it. There is simply
nothing going in the realm of public opinion or on Capitol Hill to
suggest that privatization might succeed; the only practical effect
of a Democratic plan would be to help Bush. Nor is there much
evidence that Democrats suffer by failing to acknowledge the
ostensible crisis. According to a recent survey by Democratic
pollsters Geoff Garin and Guy Molyneux, Democrats won't be blamed
for ignoring the Social Security issue because voters actually
believe Bush's solution would be worse than the status quo.
But it turns out there is a deeper explanation for Democrats'
growing obsession with presenting their own proposal. Increasingly,
Democrats think that their failure to offer a Social Security plan
reflects a fundamental lack of ideas--the most damning indictment
you can make of a political party. What these Democrats don't
understand is that offering a Social Security proposal would do
nothing to solve their larger idea problem.
It's easy to see how confusion on this point might arise. After the
election, many in the party, on the right, and in the press
concluded that Democrats had fared badly in comparison to Bush,
who, the thinking went, was burbling over with ideas about
ownership and democracy. "The Democrats are leaderless and reeling,
seemingly bereft of inspiring ideas," wrote Newsweek's Howard
Fineman in December. At the same time, Republicans controlled the
policy agenda, and the president considered Social Security his
legacy issue. For the foreseeable future, Social Security reform
was going to be the only domestic policy idea in town.
These realities have gradually converged in recent months, as
political commentators have used the Social Security debate as an
opportunity to hit Democrats for being at sea intellectually. This
take is, in fact, not so different from the talking points
Republicans have lustily repeated to goad the Democrats into
action. "Putting off the problem ... shows a lack of ideas and a
lack of being direct and forthright with the American public,"
Senator Rick Santorum has proclaimed. "And I don't think that will
be rewarded in November of '06."
But the convergence didn't take truly credible form until early
March, when Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan
Greenberg dashed off a widely read memo. Broadly speaking, they
noted, only 44 percent of voters believed the Democrats had "new
ideas for addressing the country's problems." And, disconcertingly
for the party, Carville and Greenberg cited a recent NPR poll
showing that the Social Security issue was exacerbating these
problems. "Voters are looking for reform, change and new ideas,"
they concluded, "but Democrats seem stuck in concrete."
Carville and Greenberg cited the Kerry campaign as exhibit A in
their brief. And yet, if ever there were a piece of evidence
casting doubt on the link between "having ideas" and offering
specific plans, John Kerry is it. The Kerry campaign positively
teemed with reform proposals--most of them far more innovative than
the mishmash of benefit cuts and tax increases Democrats believe
will fix Social Security. Kerry had an ambitious health care plan,
a plan for saving manufacturing jobs, a plan for limiting frivolous
lawsuits. On national security, he had a plan for increasing the
size of the Army, for adding Special Forces, for securing loose
nuclear material. Lest anyone miss the point, Kerry used the phrase
"I have a plan" 13 times in the second presidential debate. Six
months later, Democrats have never appeared more adrift.
Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of the Washington press corps to
suggest otherwise, Bush has never put forth anything resembling a
Social Security plan. The closest he has come is his suggestion
that Social Security reform should create private investment
accounts carved out of the payroll tax and that the transition
costs should not be covered by raising taxes. When pressed for more
detail--say, how he would pay for the accounts, or how he'd resolve
Social Security's long-term actuarial problems (which private
accounts don't address)-- the president has punted. "I have not
laid out a plan yet--intentionally," he said at a recent press
conference. "I have laid out principles."
Clearly, what voters mean when they claim that a politician or a
party lacks ideas isn't that they lack specific proposals; it's
that they lack a larger, animating philosophy. John Edwards, for
example, leveled a comprehensive critique of this
administration--that it was shifting society's burdens from people
who made their living from capital to people who made their living
working--that gave individual proposals meaning. Tellingly, most of
these proposals lost their resonance once the Kerry campaign
appropriated them into its wonkish miasma.
There's no question that any Democrat looking to run for president
in 2008 needs to spend the next three years contemplating how he or
she intends to compete on this level. The party's congressional
leadership could benefit from the exercise, too. But, in the
meantime, offering a Social Security plan would be a step in the
wrong direction. If Democrats offer a plan that results in a
compromise, they look even more bereft than they did
before--engaging in the kind of mindless difference-splitting that
won them such intellectual victories as lowering the official price
tag of the president's 2001 tax cut from $1.6 to $1.35 trillion.
And, if they offer a plan and no compromise emerges, they will have
tacitly acknowledged that the Social Security crisis is urgent--just
not quite urgent enough to set aside partisanship and resolve. In
either case, it's hard to see how Democrats will have bolstered
their claims to intellectual seriousness.
In all of this, it's important not to lose sight of political
reality. Democrats are the country's minority party, whose job it
is to defend core legislative priorities and to punish the majority
party for its mistakes. (See 1994, Republican revolution of.) If
congressional Democrats offer their own Social Security plan, they
will have failed on both counts. \t