Fear-mongering as strategy


Geraldine Sealey
January 6, 2005 7:57PM (UTC)

Is Social Security really so in crisis that we have no choice but to remodel it? An internal White House e-mail shows that regardless of whether it is or isn't (and it isn't), convincing Americans that the system is approaching collapse is the Bush administration's strategy for dismantling Social Security. The telling missive shows that Bush strategists know Americans will only support gutting the popular retirement program if they believe that no other options remain.

From the AP:

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The success of President Bush's push to remake Social Security depends on convincing the public that the system is "heading for an iceberg," according to a White House strategy e-mail that makes the case for cutting benefits promised for the future.

Calling the effort "one of the most important conservative undertakings of modern times," Karl Rove deputy Peter Wehner says in the e-mail that "the Social Security battle is one we can win." Doing so would advance the idea of limited government and could transform the nation's political landscape, he said.

"We have it within our grasp to move away from dependency on government and toward giving greater power and responsibility to individuals," Wehner, director of White House Strategic Initiatives, said in the e-mail. He called the Democratic Party the "party of obstruction and opposition. It is the Party of the Past."

Josh Marshall highlights the following Wehner excerpt: "For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win -- and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country." Marshall's interpretation, which is right on: "In other words, this isn't about the fiscal soundness of Social Security or the babyboomers moving toward retirement or anything else. As Wehner himself says, this is the best chance the opponents of Social Security have had in six decades of trying to phase-out the program."

If the push to overhaul Social Security stems from the "crisis" of the program being unsustainable several decades out, why does Wehner align Bush's plans with those who have opposed the program from the beginning -- indeed, oppose the very idea of it? Wehner's language reveals what Bush's push to overhaul Social Security is really all about: Not "saving" the retirement program so much as creating a false crisis in the public view so that finally, after several long decades, conservatives can kill it.

According to the Wall Street Journal (sub. only) this morning, Republicans are going along -- reluctantly.

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"Senate Republicans signaled their wariness yesterday in a private retreat on the year's legislative agenda with White House adviser Karl Rove. An attendee said the senators gave Mr. Rove 'a subtle but clearly identifiable message that the GOP [Grand Old Party] would go alongbut they were scared to death.' The senators indicated that the president 'had to step up his activity' to sell his initiative to Americans, which Mr. Rove said Mr. Bush would do. But the attendee said senators also warned the Social Security proposal 'needed to be bipartisan or else no go.'"

"Still, some Republicans are resigned to uniting behind the president, given his determination. 'The president is going to go ahead,' said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Republican leadership lieutenant. 'He cannot afford to fail. It would have repercussions for the rest of his program, including foreign policy. We can't hand the president a defeat on his major domestic initiative at a time of war.'"


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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