Bush's bait and switch

Liberal author Thomas Frank and conservative opinion maker Richard Viguerie agree that Bush roped in voters with moral issues, only to sell them out with his Social Security plan.

Published February 26, 2005 12:46AM (EST)

On just about every pressing political issue of the day, Geoff Davis, a newly elected Republican representative from Kentucky, stands close to George W. Bush. This seems to make political sense. Kentucky is very nearly the reddest of red states, where voters supported Bush by an overwhelming margin in November, and where the fuzzy concept of "moral values" was a huge hit on Election Day. In his first few months in office, Davis signed on to several red-meat GOP bills. He favors the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act of 2005, which would require that "women seeking an abortion are fully informed regarding the pain experienced by their unborn child." He also voted for legislation prohibiting states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

But Davis hasn't signed on to Bush's paramount domestic policy issue this year, the proposal to privatize Social Security. And he's not the only Republican member of Congress who isn't a fan of the ambitious plan to divert payroll taxes into private accounts invested in the stock market. Others include Jerry Moran of Kansas, who supports such family-values issues as the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act and a prohibition on Medicare payments for impotence drugs, and Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican who also supports the abortion bill and who voted for the driver's license proposal. Then there's Virgil Goode of Virginia, who would seem to be the ne plus ultra of right-wing representatives. In this term alone, Goode has signed on to the abortion bill, a constitutional prohibition on burning the American flag, legislation that requires American schools to encourage students "to have an appreciation of Western civilization," and a bill that would ban gay marriage in the nation's capital. But in a letter to his constituents, as blogger Josh Marshall points out, Goode has declared himself "negatively inclined towards" Bush's Social Security idea.

The lukewarm reception to Bush's plan among folks who would seem to be natural allies illustrates a deep problem for the White House's Social Security initiative. Social Security privatization is shaping up to be something of a wedge issue within the Republican Party -- a proposal that may split the ranks of business-friendly conservatives from those most interested in such "family values" issues as abortion and gay marriage -- which could prove costly to the party at the polls.

People in red states, particularly social conservatives, aren't clamoring for privatization. Although there have been no definitive, large-scale state-by-state surveys on Social Security, a handful of scattered red-state surveys show the president's proposal faltering in usually friendly territory. Such numbers aren't surprising, since red states are disproportionately made up of older, poorer Americans, people who greatly benefit from Social Security in its current form and don't want to see it monkeyed with.

But there's another reason red-state voters may be upset about the Social Security plan: It isn't what they thought they were pushing for when they joined Team Bush. Among social conservatives, the popular explanation for Bush's handy victory in November is "moral values": Bush didn't win because people appreciated his plan on Social Security but because he stoked the passions of the pious and the prudish with his call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. While that theory has been pretty well shot down by people outside the religious right (foreign policy and economic issues, most analysts say, were probably more important to voters than moral-values issues), the conservative movement's leading lights still maintain that Bush won only because religious people put him in office. Some of these leaders don't seem pleased that the president is now spending his political capital on Social Security reform rather than on a crusade to reform the American soul.

They include Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate and the head of the group American Values. "Regardless of which side of the Social Security debate you are on, real 'social security' -- that which truly makes society secure -- has less to do with retirement benefits and financial entitlements than it does with protecting and promoting our most vital social institutions," Bauer wrote recently in WorldNetDaily. Bauer belongs to a loose federation of right-wing operatives known as the Arlington Group. In a letter to the White House that was leaked to the New York Times, that group vented its frustration over the White House's legislative goals, warning that if Bush didn't push family-values issues, religious people could withhold their support for the Social Security plan.

Some Republicans say it might be premature to see the religious right's displeasure with Social Security privatization as a sign of an emerging split in the Republican Party between social conservatives and Wall Street types. However divergent their various goals, Republicans say they know that their party works better as a united group, when all sides band together and stick it to the Dems rather than to each other.

Still, Bush's second-term focus on money issues like Social Security, the tax code, and tort law, rather than on gay marriage and abortion, proves a point that several liberal analysts put forward during the campaign: Republican politicians constantly use the culture wars to hoodwink religious people into voting for big-business ideas that, ultimately, run against the financial interests of the voters. "This is a party with a mission, a historical mission it's adhered to since the 1930s -- and that has been the mission of the business community, the repeal of the New Deal and war with the labor movement," says Thomas Frank, whose book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" offers the most detailed explication yet of the theory that Republicans fan the flames of social issues only to get their way on business issues. Social Security privatization, Frank says, is further proof that religious people "are getting played."

Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail maven who is considered one of the engineers of the religious right's political dominance, echoes Frank. "I'm not surprised. I'm disappointed," Viguerie says of Bush's focus on Social Security reform rather than social issues. "I'm not surprised because that's the way Republican presidents always do it -- they use and abuse conservatives. We're the shock troops. We do the heavy lifting, making the phone calls, walking the precincts." But when they win elections, "the Republican politicians in the Congress and in the White House have, as long as I can remember, taken the religious conservatives for granted. They treat us in a symbolic way, give us symbolism."

With this evidently occurring once again, Viguerie warns that social conservatives may soon get fed up with the Republican leadership. He won't go so far as to say they'll abandon the party, but values voters, he argues, won't be willing to do any of the heavy lifting that Republicans have come to rely on them to do. "It's going to be hard for our people to get excited" over issues like Social Security, he says. "How do you get conservatives excited if you ignore our issues?"

About 16 percent of Americans regularly receive Social Security benefits, but these people aren't proportionately scattered throughout the country. Some states -- like Alaska, California, Colorado and Texas, places with a relatively young population -- have comparatively few Social Security beneficiaries. Only 9 percent of Alaskans, for instance, receive a Social Security check each month. By contrast, in West Virginia, the state with the largest percentage of Social Security beneficiaries, 22.4 percent of the residents are on Social Security. West Virginians, of course, chose Bush in November. Indeed, it turns out that if you look at the Social Security Administration's breakdown of Social Security beneficiaries by state, many states with a high percentage of people on Social Security are also Bush states. Of the 10 states with the largest share of the population receiving benefits -- West Virginia, Maine, Arkansas, Florida, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Iowa, Mississippi and Missouri -- only two (Maine and Pennsylvania) weren't carried by Bush.

Now, the fact that Bush won a lot of states with older populations is partly a reflection of the fact that Bush won a lot of states, period. Some of the states are very small and didn't count much toward Bush's electoral victory. Still, regardless of size, each of these senior-citizen-packed red states enjoys two votes in the U.S. Senate, where the Social Security fight is expected to come to a head -- and one can imagine that senators from those states are probably agonizing over whether to side with Bush, whom their constituents clearly love, or to keep Social Security just as it is now, which is another thing their constituents love.

The few polls that have been conducted in some red states would seem to counsel politicians against lining up too close to the White House's plan. In a recent North Carolina poll, for instance, 46 percent of the respondents said they disapproved of the Bush plan, while only 31 percent favored it. In Kentucky, the plan polls at 49 to 40, with opponents in the lead. In Montana, twice as many residents are opposed to the plan as are in favor. But pollsters warn that opinion on Social Security is "fluid"; the public is open to changing its mind, and Bush has been campaigning around the nation in an attempt to persuade Americans, as well as nervous senators, to sign on.

He may well succeed, Frank predicts. "If Bush rams it through, and I suspect he will, it could be very costly for Republicans," he adds. "It has the potential to be a huge disaster for them politically."

The disaster could come when social conservatives, people who've been duped into voting for the GOP on the assumption that it was the party of morals (rather than of money), might finally see the truth. If, as some economists predict, Social Security privatization goes badly for working people, with traditional benefits cut and stock market gains diminutive, wouldn't family-values voters realize that the Republican Party has diminished the value of their checking accounts? Couldn't Republicans possibly lose some elections over it?

Possibly. That's why most Republicans in Congress aren't jumping for joy over the Bush plan. But when it comes to Social Security reform, Frank argues, the White House and other Republican leaders may be willing to pay any price. Social Security is, after all, the linchpin of the American welfare state, the most popular and well-regarded entitlement program. By privatizing it, Republicans will achieve a long-standing ideological goal. They'll be fundamentally altering the government's responsibility to its citizens, profoundly realigning the nation in favor of the stock-market-invested rich and against the interests of the poor. As Frank says, they'll be repealing the New Deal -- and such a grand mission, they may feel, might be worth losing a few elections over.

"The leadership and the big thinkers don't care that this is going to be an extremely disastrous issue 10 years from now," Frank says. "They think they can get out of bearing the consequences of anything with some slick talk. After all, nobody blames Reagan for budget deficits anymore. And here, you're talking about such an enormous change, it will be impossible for Democrats to put it back the way it was. It's such a huge change that it will be permanent; they can't put it back once it's done."

But if it's true that the business-community Republicans are willing to lose some elections over Bush's Social Security proposal, it's also true that social conservatives aren't committed to the plan. Social conservatives, Viguerie says, are not convinced that Bush's Social Security plan is worth a steep political price. Many people think, he says, that "maybe we don't need to stick to our neck out on it." And if Republicans are going to stick their necks out, if they're going to do something that may be politically costly, social conservatives would prefer that it be something that promotes family values.

"We couldn't help but notice the contrast between how the president is approaching the difficult issue of Social Security privatization, where the public is deeply divided, and the marriage issue where public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side," the Arlington Group wrote in its letter to the White House. "Is he prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage? If so, it would create outrage with countless voters who stood with him just a few weeks ago, including an unprecedented number of African-Americans, Latinos and Catholics who broke with tradition and supported the president solely because of this issue."

Were it up to conservatives, Viguerie says, the White House would be pursuing wholly different plans in its second term. For the right wing, the absolute first priority, he says, is the nomination of conservative federal judges. After that, "social conservatives are concerned about homosexual marriage and the whole moral direction of the country. We would like to see the Republicans out there trying to right the country from a moral perspective. It seems like Republican politicians are for the most part embarrassed to talk about these issues, but we would like to see them do it."

In addition, Viguerie says, conservatives want Republicans to limit government spending -- something that Bush, who has not vetoed a single piece of legislation while in office, has been reluctant to do. "This administration has been a great disappointment in terms of the size and role of government," Viguerie says. Bush's recent budget proposal, which called for a large number of cuts to social programs, "wasn't very impressive" to conservatives. The cuts "were in areas where Congress is likely to ignore Bush," Viguerie points out. "Now, if he goes out and campaigns to abolish agencies and uses his political muscle, it'd be more impressive. But right now it seems like it might be window dressing. He proposes cuts that he knows the Congress is not going to make. He should be vetoing bills all the time. Roosevelt used to tell his aides, 'Give me a bill to veto.' This president seems to be obsessed with being liked by Congress, so it's hard to take him serious. It puts the lie to the president's words that he wants to reduce the size of government."

To be sure, there are social conservatives who disagree with Viguerie and don't see the president's push for Social Security privatization as an impediment to the success of their social issues. James Bopp Jr., a prominent Republican lawyer from Indiana, says that liberals -- people like Frank -- who claim to see a split between the aims of big-business conservatives and social-values conservatives are engaging in wishful thinking. Bush's signing of a ban on late-term abortions, his call in the State of the Union address for a ban on gay marriage, and other socially conservative measures have been greatly appreciated by the religious right, Bopp says, and the right won't balk at the Social Security plan.

Stephen Moore, the president of the Free Enterprise Fund and a longtime proponent of Social Security privatization, said the same thing. "I think it's an issue that all conservatives care about. I don't see a divide in the party."

That may be so. Yet it's hard to believe that conservatives are entirely satisfied with the new Bush term, in which the first major piece of legislation signed by the president didn't have anything to do with abortion, gay marriage, indecency on TV or the general moral direction of the country. Instead, the president's first bill, signed last week, curtailed the reach and scope of class-action lawsuits; it was a bill greatly favored by the business community.

"I'm not saying we should not be worried about Bush pursuing the culture wars," Frank says. "But so far his priorities are clearly the economic things. He got elected with these culture wars, but look at what we have to deal with -- every single issue is economic, having to do with malpractice, class-action lawsuits, Social Security. The culture wars are nowhere."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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