The Bush administration's historic assault on Social Security is stalling, as voters learn more about the costs of the president's privatization proposal and the drastic benefit cuts that would inevitably accompany such a radical change. Republicans in the Senate and House are openly skeptical of passing any legislation that resembles the president's scheme, while Democrats have remained unusually united in opposition.
The findings of the latest national opinion surveys are unanimously and stunningly negative regarding the Bush plan. Worse still, from the president's perspective, is that the more people learn about his plan, the more inclined they are to reject it.
A poll taken for the Associated Press by Ipsos-Public Affairs in late February found that 56 percent disapproved of Bush's handling of Social Security and wanted no part of privatized investments. A poll conducted for the New York Times and CBS News last week showed 51 percent opposed private accounts, with 69 percent opposed after being told that the privatization also would require cutting benefits. Surveys taken for USA Today and National Public Radio discovered similar levels of popular disapproval. No matter how much lipstick the president and his allies apply to their renamed pet pig, the public isn't buying.
Those poll numbers aren't just liberal media propaganda, as Republican members of Congress learned to their dismay during the February recess. Taking the president's plan back to their districts at town meetings -- under orders from House Majority martinet Tom DeLay -- they found their constituents overwhelmingly rejecting it. That tended to dampen their own enthusiasm for the scheme considerably. When a smiling Bush tool like Katherine Harris, R-Fla., withholds her support, it should be obvious that his plan is sinking in some very deep doo-doo.
But the conservative campaign to abolish Social Security, which began back in the Reagan era as a quixotic crusade on the fringe of national politics, won't be derailed by such immediate setbacks. Having achieved so little for so long, the privatizers are encouraged because they have convinced the public that the program faces eventual insolvency. With the president's determined support, they will soon spend tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars on propaganda advertising. And if their ads can persuade people that the system must be changed, a version of their destructive "reform" could still prevail.
For the moment, though, the polling data says otherwise. While most Americans worry that the Social Security system is in fiscal peril, their preferred solutions differ sharply from those offered by the president and his party. Not only do voters reject privatization but they also want no part of benefit cutbacks, revised wage and price indexes, or delayed retirement. Instead they strongly favor what the president, until two weeks ago, vowed he would never allow: increase the cap on Social Security taxes above the current $90,000 level.
Indeed, Bush's recent suggestion that he would consider raising the cap meant that despite all his bluster, he knows his plan is in trouble. Aside from staunching the damage done by negative polls, his concession presumably was intended to draw congressional Democrats into negotiations -- so that he can blame them next year if no legislation emerges.
The Democratic leaders would be foolish to take that bait, not least because Bush has yet to outline a complete plan, let alone send a bill to Congress. While they wait for him to finish his homework, however, they ought to be devising their own alternative to his failed plan. Among the truest clichés in politics is that you can't beat somebody with nobody; and in this instance, the likelihood is that you can't beat something with nothing.
Although Americans don't want Bush's plan, they appreciate his audacity and conviction in proposing it, according to a new survey released this week by Democracy Corps, the think tank operated by strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg. At the same time, they continue to regard the Democrats as anemic and uncreative.
If Bush's ideas are the only ideas for solving the future challenges to Social Security's solvency, then the risk is that someday, in some form, they will be enacted. But if the Democrats want to save Social Security, then eventually they will have to articulate a set of positive proposals in response to Bush and force him to negotiate with them.
The outlines of a progressive reform plan are not too difficult to imagine. Besides raising the cap on Social Security taxes, which the public is prepared to endorse, another step might be to create new personal retirement accounts in addition to Social Security, financed by tax credits, such as the USA accounts President Clinton proposed toward the end of his second term. Such accounts would encourage working families to save, improving their financial prospects and adding to capital investment.
Beyond any specific answers, however, the Democrats must speak to far broader issues than the obvious defects in the president's scheme. Are they willing to say that the federal government should guarantee a decent retirement to every working citizen? Will they fight for that principle with innovation as well as resistance? Who and what do they represent?
Greenberg and Carville explain that this is a debate not just about growth rates and actuarial tables but "a battle about values and convictions," and ought to be waged in those terms. The Democrats could not ask for more favorable terrain on which to define their party and defend the nation's future, if only they have the will and the wit to do so.