Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2005 / 30 Shevat 5765

Clarence Page

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Shouting ‘No!’ is not nearly enough


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Sometimes the political right looks remarkably like the left— and vice versa.

In President Bush's crusade to reform Social Security, we see the right-left switcheroo revealing itself in unexpected ways. The Republicans sound like the folks with bold, new ways for government to help people, while the Democrats sound like the side that wants to keep things just the way they are.

In the wake of his big inauguration festivities and the better-than-expected Iraqi election results, Bush obviously was on a roll and sounded like it when he launched his proposals for Social Security reform during his State of the Union speech last week. Seldom have we seen him appear to be more confident as an orator. He even pronounced "nuclear" correctly.

By comparison, some of the Democrats sounded like braying backbenchers in the British House of Commons when they shouted "No!" after Bush claimed the entire Social Security system "would be exhausted and bankrupt" by 2042 if steps are not taken to avert that outcome.

I was not troubled by the heckling. I remember when Republicans heckled Bill Clinton in a 1993 speech to a joint session of Congress because they didn't like his Congressional Budget Office figures. That's OK. What is a loyal opposition for if it does not, from time to time, express some opposition?

Besides, Bush has been using scare tactics to radically change Social Security, just as he has used scare tactics to push his security policies, foreign and domestic. But let us not forget how Democrats have been using scare tactics for years to oppose changes in Social Security— unless the changes were proposed by a Democrat.

For example, it was Clinton who said in his 1998 State of the Union address that "... by 2013, payroll taxes will no longer be sufficient to cover monthly payments. And by 2032, the trust fund will be exhausted, and Social Security will be unable to pay out the full benefits older Americans have been promised."

Clinton proposed that 60 percent of the budget surplus be committed to Social Security for 15 years with "a small portion invested in the private sector just as any private or state government pension would do."

In the upcoming Social Security debate, Democrats may try to revive that proposal, except that there's no surplus now. Bush gave what was left of it "back to taxpayers" with tax cuts or it was siphoned off into red ink, creating a new record-level deficit. Hey, government costs money.

And it is not hard to understand why Democrats are reluctant to deal with Bush on Social Security after feeling burned by previous compromises on prescription drugs and "No Child Left Behind" school reform bills. In each of those battles, Bush got credit for getting things done, while the Democrats blurred the distinctions that long enabled them to win as Democrats.

The game plan of Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, is to put Democrats on the defensive, forcing them to appear to be defending taxes and lawyers and everything else that polls and focus groups say Americans hate or flee.

Bush also cleverly has exempted those Americans, ages 55 and over, from his proposed Social Security program, which means the group that loves the status quo the most will not be touched by any changes. But younger workers, who don't vote as much, who don't remember the Great Depression and like the idea of private investment accounts, are the ideal target audience for this president's Social Security reform. If it works out, they are the most likely ones to show their appreciation to the Bush legacy and the Republican cause. If the reform doesn't get through Congress, the president's target audience will most likely blame the Democrats for the failure.

All of this is in keeping with Rove's usual political strategy: Rally your base and shave off as many moderates as you need to bring victory.

Rove has made no secret of his long-term goal: decades of Republican dominance in this new century to match or surpass the dominance of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs like Social Security.

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And the Republican leadership will not stop there. You become a conservative, the old saying goes, when you have something to conserve. Bush's agenda includes an overhaul of the present income tax system, perhaps with a flat tax, a national sales tax or a value-added tax. It would expand medical savings accounts. It would put a national cap on damage awards in lawsuits, disarming scoundrels and worthy plaintiffs alike.

These are not necessarily bad ideas. The mistake that Democrats have made in recent years is in allowing themselves to fall behind in the ideas debate over such issues while the conservative movement has unified and taken the lead.

Nothing in politics is permanent or guaranteed. Democrats have rested in many ways on the laurels of FDR's legacy. Now a widely "misunderestimated" George W. Bush, to borrow his own tongue-in-cheek self-description, is challenging that legacy head-on. Democrats need to recognize what they are up against and reintroduce themselves to Americans and come up with some new ideas of their own. Shouting "No!" is not enough.

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