Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Losing to soon?

Mark Schmitt (The Decembrist) has some interesting thoughts on what's really going on with the Social Security fight.

With the report this morning that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Thomas has declared Bush's plan a "dead horse" and increasing evidence of Democratic unity in opposition of Bush, the question has to be asked: has Bush(Rove) made a colossal political blunder by engaging in this fight? Or, is it possible that there was some other ulterior motive? Is it possible that they never intended to win this particular fight but were, instead, trying to engage a broader political debate?

What Thomas was saying is exactly the point I've been trying to make: that the Bush/DeLay goal is not primarily to privatize Social Security, although they would be happy to do that if they can. Rather, the goal is to create a political dynamic over the next one to two years in which the Republicans appear the party of opportunity, ownership, dynamism, and forward thinking, while the Democrats appear to be the defenders of old, boring, inadequate safety net programs. As Gingrich said, going for the biggest privatization of Social Security has the biggest political payoff, but only if it doesn't actually become law. (If it were to become law, the global financial markets would write off our debt and we would go begging to the IMF, not an event that is likely to redound to the benefit of the party in power.)

I'm unconvinced. While I give a great deal of credence to the nefariousness of the typical Bush(Rove) scheme. Even this kind of maneuvering seems to clever for this crew. After all, if they expected to lose the Social Security fight, that meant they were exposing themselves to a tremendous political embarrassment. But Mark makes an additional point that mitigates my doubts:

The problem for the White House is not that they will lose the legislation. They were prepared for that. The problem is that they can't even get to the starting point of credibility on their legislation, even befor they offer it. If they can't get to the debate they want, they will lose control of the agenda, and it will disintegrate into a bunch of nutty and hugely embarassing ideas like Thomas's plan to "gender-adjust" Social Security to reduce benefits for women because they live longer. (Putting all this together, Social Security is, according to Republicans, unfair to African-Americans because they die young and too generous to widows because they live too long.) If you can remember not to panic about any of this actually becoming law, it will be highly entertaining.

This sorry game is over. The challenge for Democrats is now to drag it out, to inflict maximum pain, to drag this out at least as long as the Clinton health care debacle was drawn out.

It may be that, while Bush(Rove) never expected to win the privatization fight, they never expected the opposition to their efforts to coalesce this quickly. They may have expected the battle to drag out indeterminately over the next 6-9 months, resulting in a compromise proposal which would be what they really wanted in the first place and which would allow them to brag about "Saving Social Security" in the 2006 campaign. What they didn't expect is that their own side would abandon the fight before it was even joined.

Mark is right that the advantage is to the Democrats right now, if they have the political acumen to play it right (a big IF of course).

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