The canonical example of third rail politics is the GOP’s doomed 2005 push to privatize Social Security. After a reelection campaign of jingoism and fear mongering, George W. Bush claimed he’d won political capital and set about spending it on an unrelated plan that would’ve diverted significant payroll tax revenue into private investment accounts. Had he succeeded, many retirees would have become vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the market, and the guaranteed-benefit pension aspect of Social Security likely would have disappeared.
Liberals take great solace in the fact that Bush failed, and will reprise their strategy of unwavering opposition and refusing to negotiate when Republicans introduce plans next year to repeal the Affordable Care Act and phase out Medicare. Their resistance may well succeed.
But before they embark upon it, they should consider the possibility that, like everything in the Trump era, things probably won’t go precisely according to plan. Past GOP attacks on entitlement programs have been fairly frontal. Trump and his agenda-setters on Capitol Hill are going to do their best to keep this one off of the front pages.
In the end, Bush’s Social Security privatization never got a vote in Congress. In the face of intense public and Democratic Party objections, Republicans shelved it and then tried to pretend it never happened. But that was not for lack of effort on the part of privatizers, including Bush himself, who barnstormed the country trying to secure popular support for the plan.
In other words, it was huge news.
Donald Trump, by contrast, is currently barnstorming the country congratulating himself on his victory. He campaigned against privatizing Medicare, and promised to replace Obamacare with “something terrific” that covered everyone. “You cannot let people die on the street, OK?” he famously said. It is unlikely, in other words, that he will make a big Medicare privatization sales pitch that commands daily media attention…
On a daily basis, Trump has proven able to divert media attention away from the plutocratic government he is assembling and on to a variety of shiny objects. His meetings with Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio received far more coverage, for instance, than the fact that his designated Environmental Protection Agency director worked hand in glove with polluters as Oklahoma’s attorney general. He has not tweeted about Obamacare or turning Medicare over to private insurers, but he did appoint one of the most fiercely dedicated foes of both programs to run the Department of Health and Human Services.
The canonical bully pulpit story involves the president persuading the public to support his policy views through the force of rhetoric. Outside of foreign policy when the country is about to go to war, there is essentially no evidence that this power exists. And even in theory, it’s not clear how this would work, given that only a minority of the least persuadable voters pays any attention to the details of presidential speeches. A president can’t make proposed policies more popular on net by advocating for them no matter how well they communicate and no matter how good the messaging. No president is going to be able to make Paul Ryan’s agenda popular.
Trump, though, might be able to facilitate the passage of Ryan’s agenda simply by getting the press to focus on various shiny objects. One reason it’s absolutely ridiculous to assert that we should ignore the disastrous, nearly-policy free coverage of the 2016 campaign is that it’s not as if the press is suddenly about to start ignoring Trump’s reality show and start informing the public about what a Republican Congress is going to do to the country. As Democrats figure out how to stop as many of these initiatives as possible, this is something that needs to be kept in mind. Donald Trump is a unique problem in many ways and Democrats need to be prepared to deal with this environment.