Think Tank

by Noam Scheiber | April 18, 2005

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

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