Saturday, March 05, 2005

Losing the victory

Digby argues that the Social Security fight may be the opportunity the left needs to re-establish the argument that government can actually have a positive impact on people's lives:

I realize that there has been a full generation of brainwashing about how the government is always bad and that everyone will get rich, rich, rich if the government just gets off their backs. But I have a sense that the force of this argument is getting stale. The assault on social security may just be the thing that opens people's minds to what their philosophy really means. And it may just open a window to allow the idea back in to the minds of the citizens that government programs can be an affirmative good. Social Security works. It's more efficient, more fair and more inexpensive than any of the alternatives. People apparently instinctively know this. Since the Republicans decided to bring this to the forefront we should take credit for it and piggyback our new progressive ideas on its back. It's been so long since anyone had the nerve to do it, that it sounds downright fresh.

The last time a similar moment presented itself, Democrats they completely failed to capitalize on it. I'm speaking of the 1995 government shutdown. Newt Gingrich, thinking that Clinton was permanently hobbled following the Democrat's defeats in 1994, decided to play an extortion game with Clinton. The president would either have to sign on to some radical Republican programs or Gingrich would effectively block the continued financing of the government.

Gingrich didn't count on two things: (1) that Clinton would stand up to him and (2) that the shutdowns would actually create sympathy for government workers. The Republicans had effectively stigmatized the government as a bunch of faceless bureaucrats who love nothing more than burying the good people of American under mountains of paperwork. But, when the government shut down, the nightly news was full of stories of government workers who were effectively out of work. Suddenly a face was put on the civil service and many people came to realize that the government actually did perform some useful services.

It was a case of the American people not knowing what they had until they lost it. By shutting down the government, Gingrich effectively neutered 20 years of Republican anti-government propaganda.

Clinton won that fight, won back his political strength, and used that strength to win re-election in 1996.

But the Democrats failed to capitalize on Gingrich's blunder by building on the temporary sympathy for government workers. The Democrats could have used it as the launching point for a campaign to win back support for the government. But instead they simply let the Republicans off the hook.

If the Social Security fight turns out to be a similar defeat for the Republicans the Democrats better be ready to capitalize it. If they do not then they will lose the victory.


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