By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—There’s something about the American public that makes President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney bristle. Cheney says he “can’t buy” polls that consistently show people have turned against the Iraq war and believe the turmoil there is creating more terrorists.
Bush can’t buy the notion that his plan for turning Social Security into a system of private accounts died because the public simply didn’t want it. He plans to revive the idea next year, the president recently told The Wall Street Journal, because he believes that by then he’ll be able to “drain the politics out of the issue.’‘
It was precisely the politics of the issue that set congressional Republicans fleeing from the Bush privatization scheme last year as if a scantily clad dancer had wandered into one of their news conferences. The lawmakers, some of them confronted by angry protesters at the public meetings they held on Social Security revision, allowed the president’s plan to die an extraordinarily quiet death. There was not even a subcommittee vote on it.
Bush is deaf to the death rattle sounded by his own party. He included the privatization scheme in his fiscal 2007 budget, showing that it would drain $721 billion from the Social Security trust fund as payroll tax money was diverted from the government’s social insurance program and funneled into private accounts. In July, the White House mid-session budget review reiterated the plan and its price tag. That was also when Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who took over as House Republican leader after Tom DeLay’s inglorious exit, vowed to take up Social Security again after the midterm congressional elections, “if I’m around in a leadership role come January.”
If someone were to point out that all of this sounds as though the White House and some very powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill fully intend to renew the push to privatize Social Security if they retain control of Congress in November, that person—perhaps me—would undoubtedly be accused of partisan “scare tactics.” One could reasonably ask why talking about Social Security is a scarier tactic than the White House campaign slogan, which amounts to “elect Democrats and die at the terrorists’ hands.’’ But never mind.
In truth, congressional Democrats, as well they should, have seized on the president’s stated intentions and those of Republican lawmakers to warn that the GOP hasn’t really overcome its urge to “fix” Social Security by cutting guaranteed benefits and subjecting beneficiaries to the vagaries of Wall Street. “The president has told me personally that he does not intend ... to take this off the table as long as he is president of the United States,’’ Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) told journalists during a conference call last week.
If you don’t believe Rangel, then listen to the White House: “The president is deeply committed to fixing the Social Security system for future generations and he plans to address this important issue after the election,” spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said in an e-mail response to a question.
And what if Democrats wrest control of the House from Republicans, which many independent analysts tentatively predict? “That’s not going to happen,” Bush snapped in his Wall Street Journal interview.
To Bush, draining the politics out of the Social Security issue doesn’t mean engaging congressional Democrats in serious, bipartisan negotiations over how best to shore up a program upon which more than 50 million Americans depend. It means keeping Republicans in power. Then, once the election is finished, claiming that another Republican victory validates every one of his policies and plans, including those for Social Security.
The irony is that if the Democrats do take control of the House, the 2005 Social Security debacle surely will be seen as an early marker along their path to political revival. The Bush plan did for Democrats what they rarely can do for themselves: It unified them. “If we had lost that fight, we as a party should be in the dustbin of history,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said at a breakfast for journalists in May.
For now, the defenders of traditional Social Security have won. But that’s only because the public backlash against the president’s plan was louder and more politically powerful than any sound bite in Bush’s script. But remember, this is a president who simply does not read bad reviews. So expect a Social Security sequel next year.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.