There are no signs that anybody is budging or willing to budge. And so it’s time for a provisional obit for Social Security reform – an exercise in cold stock-taking, because when historians look back on this episode they’ll see a compendium of everything that is wrong with contemporary politics.
Having skimmed decades of private-account proposals, Republicans did not appreciate how unfamiliar this idea would seem to many people. They didn’t appreciate how beloved Social Security is, and how much they would have to show they love it, too, before voters would trust them to reform it. In their efforts to create a risk-taking, dynamic society, they didn’t appreciate how many people, including conservatives, value security and safety.
Ah, the unfamiliarity. It isn’t that people hate the idea of private accounts, it’s that they don’t understand why such accounts are good for them. If only, IF ONLY the Republicans could have gotten their point across, private accounts would have been wonderfully successful. If only the Republicans had been able to explain how deeply, truly, and madly they loved social security, everything would have been okay. If only the Republicans had been better at covering up their burning hatred of social security and desire to put it in the ground permanently. . .oops, nevermind. Didn’t mean to show you that.
More experienced negotiators might have put the solvency issue before the personal-accounts issue. That would have created a consensus on the need for change before we got to the divisive issue of how to fix the system.
If Republicans had gone with the solvency lie instead of the private accounts lie, more saps might have fallen for it.
When Social Security reform was broached, the party leaders went to the F.D.R. Memorial, as if the glory days of the 1930’s were the guideposts for the 21st century. Meanwhile, the party base has grown militant with rage. The Howard Dean hotheads declare that they hate the evil Republicans, making compromise seem like collaborating with Satan. The militants, bloggers and polemicists have waged a relentless pressure campaign on any moderates who might even be thinking of offering constructive ideas.
The Democrats have failed America in their senseless advocacy of traditional Democratic Party principles. They have made the profound error of respecting the history of the Party enough to oppose Republican initiatives.
The party’s greatest failures have come in the past few weeks. Sensing the inadequacy of the first Bush approach, many Republicans have floated brave concessions. Several leading Republicans proposed a big payroll tax increase for the upper class and upper-middle class. Senator Robert Bennett suggested progressively indexing benefits to protect the poor and working class from cost-saving steps.
These offers are more progressive than any Republicans have made before or are likely to make again. But the Democrats played the Yasir Arafat role at Camp David. They made no counteroffers. They offered no plan. They just said no.
Sensing their imminent crushing defeat, the Republicans cordially responded by trying just about anything to escape the demands their President was making upon them. The Democratic Party failed by refusing to bail them out. Also, the Democrats are possibly terrorists, and may want to destroy Israel. Just like Arafat.
Instead, many made demagogic speeches about Republican benefit cuts, as if it is possible to fix the system without benefit cuts. Many ginned up the familiar scare tactics designed to frighten the elderly.
Several Democrats made the critical faux pax of pointing out that the Republican “plan” would inevitably lead to benefit cuts and default on part of the national debt. This was impolite and scary. It’s not nice to scare people.
Oh, yes, there’s one more group to be criticized: the American voters. For the past 30 years, Americans have wanted high entitlement spending and low taxes. From the looks of things today, they – or more precisely their children – are going to live with the consequences.
The American people don’t deserve the brave Republican Party. They should be careful. If they’re not willing to go along, President Bush might move to some country that can truly appreciate him, like Russia or Chile. Then where would we be?