Bush Loses Round One
Issue #
66

Down in Washington, the big story in the Social Security battle is congressional Democrats’ surprising unity against a heavily bankrolled White House campaign to win public support for partial privatization. After absorbing big losses in last November’s election, the Democrats are uncharacteristically speaking with one voice against privatization while the normally disciplined Republicans are tripping over each other with mixed messages and competing policy positions.

The main reason for the Democrats’ confidence is that the numbers favor them. While the Republicans enjoy a comfortable majority in the House, in the Senate they hold only 55 seats whereas they need 60 votes to stop a Democratic filibuster.

A handful of Democratic senators have spoken of their desire to work with Bush on “reforming” Social Security. But aides to several say privately that’s only because they come from states that voted for Bush last November and have to appear cooperative.

In reality, Democratic opposition to Bush’s plan appears solid. Bush would let workers carve out part of their payroll tax contributions to Social Security to set up individual investment accounts while reducing the basic benefits that the system provides to retirees and borrowing trillions in new federal debt to underwrite the scheme.

Along with the crisis Bush’s plan could create for generations, privatization is liable to slowly squeeze the income of families that would have to support the elderly as their Social Security benefits dwindle. That may be one reason labor unions and pro-Social Security groups like the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) have had such success bird-dogging Bush and Republican lawmakers as they’ve crisscrossed the country in recent weeks trying to sell privatization.

SHARP QUESTIONS

After outlining his plan in his State of the Union address, Bush announced that he would visit 60 cities in 60 days for a series of carefully scripted “town hall meetings.” Some 70 Republican House members, too, fanned out while Congress was in recess during the week of Presidents’ Day to sell their constituents on the idea that Social Security is in crisis and must be drastically restructured. What the lawmakers mainly encountered was lukewarm support – if any – and sharp questions.

Hoping to attract the younger voters who they believe have lost faith in Social Security and want private accounts, they instead met older workers and retirees who were deeply skeptical of the idea that the stock market can replace guaranteed retirement benefits.

Credit the CAF, the AFL-CIO, and such unions as the United Auto Workers for helping to get concerned activists out to meet and greet the GOP. The underwhelming reception to the Republicans’ charm offensive threw their congressional leaders into disarray, with some suggesting compromises and others hinting they might have to abandon the whole idea of privatization for this year.

THE PRIVATIZERS BATTLE ON

Polls show that, if anything, support for private accounts is slipping.

The White House and its point person on Social Security, Treasury Secretary John Snow, still insist they will win. Bush advisor Karl Rove has set up a campaign-style war room at the Treasury Department, and conservative groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and USA Next, a group connected with John Kerry-bashing Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have raised tens of millions of dollars for Snow to keep the privatization offensive going for months in TV and print ads.

So long as Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), remain solid, it might not matter. But some major question marks loom. Leading Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and campaign manager James Carvill are urging the party to come up with their own plan to save Social Security, and preempt Bush’s familiar tactic of charging “obstructionism.”

Others argue that the party has nothing to lose by simply standing its ground and everything to lose by proposing its own plan, which could give Bush the leverage to pressure them into a bad compromise.

Another question is how strong a grassroots coalition the Democrats have really built. Arguably, the greatest public-policy victory labor has won in the past decade was the breakup of a mating dance over Social Security between congressional Republicans and the Clinton White House in the late nineties. That victory owed a lot to labor’s ability to mobilize its membership, both at home and in Washington.

With Bush and his allies vowing to fight on, progressives may have to keep their supporters in the field for the long haul.

Eric Laursen, a New York-based journalist and activist, is writing a book, The People’s Pension: The Politics of Social Security Since 1980.