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“Is Never Good Enough For You?”: Nancy Smash And Social Security

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Nancy Pelosi, as is well known, played an absolutely critical role not only in getting the ACA across the finish line but ensuring its content would be as progressive as was viable given the state of play (although the relationship between Pelosi and Obama was more mutually reinforcing than it has sometimes been portrayed in retrospect.) What has been less widely discussed was Pelosi’s absolutely critical role in saving Social Security:

The conventional wisdom at the time was that it was bold, visionary, and correct of Bush to push for something along these lines. And the expectation was that ultimately, he would get it done.

All the major legislation of Bush’s first term — tax cuts, Medicare reform, the Iraq War authorization, more tax cuts — passed with Democratic votes. Why should Social Security be any different?

Pressure mounted on Democrats — including from inside their own caucus — to propose a Social Security fix of their own to counter Bush’s proposal. Pelosi’s insight was that any Democratic proposal would necessarily prompt intraparty infighting and muddy the waters, while Republicans simply had no way of resolving the internal contradictions of their own position. If Democrats simply stayed united and critical of privatization, the GOP plan would collapse under its own weight.

What they had to do was do nothing:

As the spring of 2005 wore on, some pestered her every week, asking when they were going to release a rival plan.

“Never. Is never good enough for you?” Pelosi defiantly said to one member.

It worked. While Democrats refused to engage in the details of the debate, infighting consumed Republicans. And the fact that the whole idea was unpopular loomed larger and larger in the minds of GOP elected officials who had no particular stake in the details.

Bush attempted to barnstorm the country in support of privatization, but that only drew more attention to an embarrassing and unpopular situation. No bill ever came to a vote in either house of Congress.

Pelosi maintaining Democratic unity over Social Security — in the face of intense pressure from elite journalists and editors who consider the desirability of “entitlement reform” an objective fact — was not only immensely important in itself, it was a real pivot point in the turn of the Democratic Party way from the DLC era. And it was after the failure of Social Security annihilation, not Katrina, when Bush’s poll numbers really started to tank. It’s a critical reason why Pelosi is one of the most important and effective legislative leaders in American history.

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