To get a sense of the steep grade ahead for George W. Bush's Social Security privatization plan, check out the remarkably measured email message Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman sent to supporters last night. It's a progress report of sorts, but it's more about the efforts Republicans are making than about any successes they have achieved. Mehlman talks about the town hall meetings congressional Republicans have been holding, but he says nothing about the chilly reception that they're getting at those meetings. Mehlman talks about the president's Social Security roadshow and all the phone calls and emails going out, but he can't identify any groundswell of public support because popular opinion is moving against the president.
The best Mehlman can say is that all this outreach is helping to "advance a national dialogue." "The first step in this process is to make our fellow citizens aware that there is a problem and a need to act," Mehlman writes. "These town hall meetings were important because they helped more Americans understand the problem, which must occur before the debate about specific solutions can begin."
Of course, the president has done things the other way around. Just as he did with his tax cuts, Bush started with a solution -- in this case, private savings accounts, an idea that first caught his fancy decades ago -- and then went looking for a problem that needed solving. He found one in the fiscal imbalance that will one day hit Social Security. Never mind that the solution he has proposed won't actually fix that problem. There's a problem, there's a solution, and -- for this don't-ask-questions White House -- that ought to be good enough.
But for once, it isn't. Bush spent February barnstorming the country to sell his plan, but a new USAToday poll shows that Americans are less sure of the need for Social Security reform than they were when Bush started. And only 35 percent of those polled now approve of Bush's handling of Social Security -- his lowest approval rating on the issue since he took office. The more Bush says about Social Security, the less voters like his plan.
Republicans are getting nervous. The White House has told its allies on the issues that they have six weeks to turn around public opinion on Social Security, the Washington Post reports this morning. To further that effort, the Post says, the administration has staffed a war room at the Treasury Department with the former spokesman for the Republican National Convention and two former employees of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. They'll monitor comments members of Congress make in local media as a way to watch for opportunities or their opposite.
So far, it's more of the opposite. Republicans on Capitol Hill are losing enthusiasm for Bush's plans with each town hall meeting they hold, and some have begun looking for a way out. Florida Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. has floated a face-saving measure for the president -- a plan to launch small private investment accounts that would be separate from and in addition to Social Security benefits. And even those who are sticking with the president are beginning to talk of Social Security in a way that must be giving Frank Luntz fits. Over the weekend, Sen. Rick Santorum said that Republicans need to consider not just private investment accounts but cutting Social Security benefits or raising the cap on Social Security taxes. This isn't where the Republicans want to be.
For now, this one seems to be the Democrats' to lose. The problem is, they're pretty good at doing that. Democrats on Capitol Hill should be at least cautiously optimistic that they're out-flanking the White House and its over-reaching allies, but there's more caution than optimism there right now. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who lectured fellow Democrats on the need to support Condoleezza Rice's confirmation as secretary of state, could cave to the virtually non-existent public pressure to get on board with Bush on Social Security. If he did, it would be a crack in the otherwise solid wall of Democratic opposition, and George Bush and Karl Rove and the moneyed interests aligned with them would rush in to exploit it.
It hasn't happened yet, and there's no reason for it to happen. But that doesn't mean it won't. This game has just begun.