Half Credit

During George W. Bush's first term and especially after his re-election, Washington settled on a conventional wisdom about his presidency: Bush may be prone to dangerous policy blunders, but his political instinct is unerring.

The unpleasant predicament in which the White House finds itself on its signature second-term domestic-policy initiative -- revising Social Security by undoing the New Deal program's social-insurance protections and replacing them with private investments -- has upended the consensus. Despite the president's personal public-relations offensive, notwithstanding generous lobbying support from business, and even with control of Congress in the hands of Republicans who have themselves promoted private accounts, the Bush proposal languishes near death. Conservatives believed Bush's second inauguration had brought within their grasp their dream of ending Social Security as we know it. Now they're living a political nightmare.

As the middle of this congressional year approaches -- the point by which the White House initially hoped to have Social Security legislation speeding toward a Rose Garden signing ceremony -- nothing that might pass the House or the Senate has been introduced. Republican House members refuse to take a treacherous vote on Social Security overhaul unless the measure already has cleared the more difficult hurdle of the Senate. Meanwhile, the senator in charge of maneuvering a bill through that chamber, finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, welcomed Bush to his home state of Iowa recently with a newspaper interview in which the senator said he wasn't ready to “fall on my sword” for the president's Social Security agenda.

How did such a skillful politician as Bush -- newly elected with a majority of the vote, armed at first with favorable polling data and an intriguing Republican theory that promoting an “ownership society” finally would shred the remnants of the Democrats' New Deal coalition -- wind up so isolated? Republican enthusiasm for private accounts waned for substantive and political reasons. A few of these lawmakers really are fiscal conservatives and object to the mountain of new debt that would run up to start private accounts while Social Security continues paying benefits to current recipients. Others are alarmed that the Bush plan contemplates cuts in guaranteed benefits of as much as 40 percent.

But most dramatically, Bush tripped over an obstacle so obvious it's hard to believe the White House didn't see it: Members of Congress are on the ballot next year; Bush isn't. “He's running for history, and we're running for our jobs,” a veteran House Republican told me. When Bush hinted he would consider raising revenue by lifting the current $90,000 cap on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax, he broke with Republican dogma against any tax increase, at any time, for any purpose. Lifting the cap is a reasonable compromise for a president striving for the history books. But it's heresy for a Republican facing the ballot box -- especially when the lawmaker has a paper trail of anti-tax pledges from previous campaigns. About 100 of 232 House Republicans have told the leadership they won't vote to raise the cap.

Despite these schisms, Bush plunged ahead, troubling himself far less with the substance of policy than with salesmanship. But that faith-in-marketing approach was also a mistake, a gross underestimate of the extent to which tough congressional politics can be determined by the tough substantive choices lawmakers are forced to make. Until now, Bush's domestic policy has been a mix of doing what makes politicians feel good (cutting taxes) and what makes the Republican base feel good (harrumphing about abortion, gays, and other social issues). But the politics of Social Security aren't painless. Any solution that might actually fix its long-term finances (as opposed to creating private accounts, which worsens them) requires some combination of tax increases and benefit cuts. “Republicans don't like the tax part. Nobody likes the benefit part,” says Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has come under fire within his own party because his proposal would lift the Social Security tax cap.

Bush himself has helped create these difficult politics. During his tenure, voters have become conditioned to expect no call for sacrifice. “When was the last time the public's been challenged by government to do something long-term and hard?” Graham asks.

Well, you'd have to go back to Bill Clinton's 1993 deficit-reduction plan, which included tax increases and spending cuts. The tough package drew not a single Republican vote. Some House Democrats who stuck with their president paid the ultimate price: They lost their seats -- and the party lost control of the House. The Clinton health-care plan provided another textbook chapter on how the hard work of governance makes for horrible politics.

Not that Bush himself has made any hard choices on Social Security. The White House refuses to propose its own legislation, throwing this unwelcome task into the unreceptive congressional lap. In February, the administration was forced to admit that adding private accounts to Social Security does nothing to solve future solvency problems. Though Bush's own Social Security commission made that plain in its 2001 report, the revelation by a senior administration official at a White House briefing hit the airwaves with force because it directly undercut what Bush himself had been saying on the stump.

That seemed to be a turning point. People quickly deduced that Bush was offering snake oil, not a magic elixir to cure what ails their favorite government program. By early spring, moderates like Representative Ellen Tauscher of California -- a pro-business Democrat, former Wall Street investment banker, and a swing vote on economic issues -- detected unbridled public anger at the president over private accounts. A Social Security “town hall” meeting in her affluent, suburban district drew 550 people -- Democrats and Republicans, retirees and middle-aged people, the disabled and widows who survive on the system. “I was stunned by the rancor against the president,” Tauscher told me.

Personal stories came flooding out, with one voter after another telling of how Social Security touches their lives. The elderly were particularly incensed, Tauscher says, at Bush's repeated efforts to wall them off from the debate by assuring them that their own benefits wouldn't be touched. “They said, ‘He's basically treating us as though we're stupid or selfish,'” Tauscher recalls.

With Republicans cowering before similar hostile home audiences, what Democrat needed a political consultant? Democratic unity against private accounts -- and horror at the hint that Bush might steal away the party's touchstone program -- was always expected in the liberal-leaning House caucus. But in the Senate, Bush had hoped to pick off a handful of centrists and Democrats from red states to give his scheme a bipartisan gloss.

The White House failed to see the rancor that's taken hold among Democrats because of Bush's refusal to treat them as even junior partners. Some who supported Bush early on tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind Act, and creation of the Homeland Security Department -- only to see the president jet into their states to campaign hard against them -- are embittered. “They've burned a lot of bridges up here on the Hill,” says Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Once Reid saw that House Republicans objected to raising the cap on taxable wages -- ruling out an area of compromise necessary to draw even moderate Senate Republicans -- it was easy to hold his own party together. Now, Democrats say they won't negotiate any plan unless the White House first abandons privatization.

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Meanwhile, a debate has opened up in the Democratic camp on whether the party should put forward an alternate Social Security plan. But the few nervous consultants and isolated lawmakers who say the party must produce its own plan misread the changed dynamic. “We don't have to come up with a plan until we defeat theirs,” says Tauscher. “[The president] doesn't have a plan, either.”

The alternative-plan proponents also misunderstand history. What was the Republican alternative to Clinton's health-care proposal? There wasn't one. Did Newt Gingrich quiver about being called a chronic naysayer? To the contrary: Republicans heading toward the 1994 midterm elections were determined to block health-care overhaul -- period -- fearing that a Clinton victory threatened their party's long-term future. Even reflexive dealmakers like Bob Dole backed away.

Right now, it seems unlikely that Bush will even set the table for genuine talks. Grassley isn't expected to move forward until the summer. After the traditional August recess, the House will be consumed with the 2006 elections.

If the grand Social Security debate ends with a whimper, can Democrats claim political credit? Republicans still boast of having stopped the Clinton health-care plan, even though the crisis it was meant to alleviate has worsened. There is little reason why Social Security revision can't be put off until Bush leaves office; no benefit check is going to bounce between now and then.

Yet Democrats shouldn't revel in their brilliance. What may well save Social Security isn't their political maneuvering. It's the passion with which the public has rallied to defend the program. Time and again at public forums, people testify to their own experience with Social Security -- middle-aged adults who as children received survivors' benefits after a parent's early death stand with octogenarians who rise stiffly with their canes. The program is embedded in their lives. They worry aloud about the prospects for their children and grandchildren if Social Security's guarantee is compromised.

Which is to say, the Democrats have had one political genius whom George W. Bush can't seem to best. His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Marie Cocco is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers' Group. As a reporter and columnist for Newsday, she covered Congress, the White House, and presidential politics.