January 14, 2005,
Senator Lindsey Graham thinks that the White House should sit back and let Congress go to work on Social Security reform. A White House plan, he fears, would only make it harder for him to get Senate Democrats behind reform. David Brooks agrees, writing, "Let Congress Lead." House Republicans tend to want the president to lead instead.
Our own sense is that reform is going to have to move along parallel tracks. Senator Graham should continue to talk to Democratic senators to see which ones are open to reform, and at what price. But the president is going to have to do the heavier lifting, at least at first. Social Security is on the agenda in the first place because of Bush. Congressional Republicans are still too divided, fearful, and confused to drive reform. The Congress is incapable of getting on its own to where the president wants it to go. Rob Simmons, a House Republican from Connecticut, has already turned tail on reform, likely in an overreaction to the tough re-election fight he just survived. If Bush leaves the field, expect other congressmen to follow Simmons's pathetic example.
Bush can't ride roughshod over the Congress. But the odds that Bush will get a bill to his (and our) liking will increase if the White House writes a bill (while signaling a willingness to adjust it).
One manifestation of the Hill Republicans' timorousness is their anxiety about getting Democratic "cover" for Social Security reform. This is the wrong way to look at the politics of the issue. House Republicans, in particular, are misapplying the lesson of their 2003-4 effort to pass a Medicare-reform bill. They thought that they would get credit for creating a prescription-drug benefit, only to discover that senior citizens blamed them because their new coverage is, in many cases, worse than what they used to have. They think that they would be getting less blame if they had managed to get more Democrats to vote for the bill. (The fallout from the Medicare bill is also, incidentally, why House Republicans want the president to make the case for Social Security reform. They feel that he let them down by not promoting the Medicare bill once it passed.)
The politics of Social Security reform are very different. While a bill is being debated, there will be attempts to scare people near or past retirement age about imminent benefit cuts. If a bill passes, however, it will be impossible to sustain that fear. People will see that their checks are not being reduced in value. There won't be a backlash. The danger for Republicans is that a bill is proposed and then fails, making it possible for opponents to make all kinds of wild charges about it. The challenge is to get 218 votes in the House and either 51 or 60 votes in the Senate. That will require getting some Democrats to support reform. But it's Democratic votes, not Democratic "cover," that are required. Republicans do not need to win a single Democratic vote above what it takes to enact legislation.
The White House has a clearer view of the politics of reform than congressional Republicans do. But its explanations of its position could use some improvement. The president has leaned too heavily on the idea that there is a "crisis" in Social Security's finances. We have no doubt that financing the program will soon be a serious problem, and that the longer we delay facing this problem the worse it will get.
But there are at least two problems with the "crisis" rhetoric. The first is that it makes the debate turn on the imminence of the problem. Yet the president's men want to solve the program's finances forever. Present them with a plan to shore up the program's finances for 75 years, and they deride it as too short-term. The rhetoric and the plan are mismatched.
The second, deeper problem is that the crisis rhetoric takes the focus away from personal accounts and puts it on cuts to future benefits. Democrats will say that the Republicans are going to cut seniors' benefits; Republicans will deny it. Even if Republicans succeed in making their case, they will merely be neutralizing opposition. They also need to mobilize a constituency that sees itself as benefiting from that reform. And to do that, they will have to stress the advantages that personal accounts offer to young people. They will have to emphasize not how they will rejigger the government's finances, but how they will improve our retirements. If Bush's plan includes benefit cuts, those cuts will have to be packaged as part of the transition to a sustainable, modernized pension system.
The president wants a new deal for America's young people a better deal. He should say so, in those terms.