Is George W. Bush trying to save the Democrats from confusion and help them take back Congress? That question arises because he suddenly raised a topic this past week that has been politically taboo for him and his fellow Republicans since last year: the privatization of Social Security.
Strangely enough, the president returned to that sore subject this week for the first time in many months when he addressed the Manhattan Institute in New York. The thrust of Bush's speech concerned the rather dull (and mostly irrelevant) subject of the line-item veto, which he hopes will improve his poor record as a fiscal conservative. ("I would like to be part of the budgetary process," he said, as if he hadn't been in office since January 2001.)
But pretending to be a fiscal conservative invariably means talking about the anticipated future problems of "entitlement programs" such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Speaking before a friendly audience at the conservative think tank, Bush could not resist congratulating himself for his past effort to "reform" the nation's retirement security program, and vowing that he and the Republicans in Congress would finish the job before he leaves office. His remarks on Social Security are worth quoting in full -- if only because he was so politically reckless as to mention his greatest political failure as midterm elections approach.
"As you might recall, I addressed that issue last year, focusing on Social Security reform," said Bush. "I'm not through talking about the issue. I spent some time today in the Oval Office with the United States senators, and they're not through talking about the issue either. It's important for this country [applause] -- I know it's hard politically to address these issues. Sometimes it just seems easier for people to say, we'll deal with it later on. Now is the time for the Congress and the president to work together to reform Medicare and reform Social Security so we can leave behind a solvent balance sheet for our next generation of Americans.
"If we can't get it done this year, I'm going to try next year," he went on. "And if we can't get it done next year, I'm going to try the year after that, because it is the right thing to do."
Of course, what the president refers to as Social Security "reform" was once the centerpiece not only of his agenda for a second term but of his grand ideological conception of an "ownership society." He has wanted to abolish Social Security since he first ran for Congress in Texas in 1978, back when his father's friends were staking him millions of dollars to start his own little oil company.
But his campaign to phase out the monumental legacy of the New Deal, announced so confidently in the weeks following his 2004 election victory, was ill-fated. Plagued by internal disorganization, partisan polarization and the simple fact that his plan's numbers simply didn't add up, it sank lower the more he talked it up. Aside from its troublesome math, the Bush proposal confronted an unusual political problem: Privatization fractured the Republicans and united the Democrats.
Corporate and libertarian conservatives have always shared Bush's hatred of Social Security and saw the president's initiative as the final blow in a war they have wanted to fight for 70 years, but the party's mass base in the religious right felt no such enthusiasm. Working families whose Republican allegiance is based on fundamentalist values, and whose elderly parents have benefited greatly from Social Security and Medicare, regarded the Bush plan as risky and deceptive.
Wealthy evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson endorsed privatization, along with many other right-wing pundits and organizations, but they couldn't persuade their people to drink the Kool-Aid. Some of the religious rightists scorned Social Security as a low priority that distracted effort from their own campaigns against abortion and gay marriage, and a few even opposed Bush's plan.
Meanwhile, the prospect that this president might dismantle their party's signature program forged the kind of unshakable solidarity among Democrats that they have been unable to achieve on their own. Neoliberals and Southern conservatives who had publicly contemplated various brands of privatization were brought to heel under strict discipline (in no small part by the watchdogs of the blogosphere).
The president got rolled, but he clearly has not given up -- and he isn't alone.
For while Bush may have spoken out of turn in a season when politicians prefer not to test voter sentiment on this issue, the privatization struggle is very much on the minds of his fellow Republicans. His new chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, has talked about reviving the issue next year, and so has Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., the chairman of the House subcommittee on Social Security and a strong privatization advocate. At a policy luncheon held by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on June 6, McCrery confided his expectation that the Republicans would resume their campaign for private accounts and the end of Social Security as we know it. "We tried that last year -- didn't get very far," McCrery said. "That's an issue that simply is going to have to wait until after the elections."
Naturally the Republicans aren't eager to discuss their Social Security scheme, which the public rejected so resoundingly last year. They are biding their time. For now they will talk instead about terrorism, flag burning, abortion and gays. And if they maintain or expand their majority in both houses, they will proceed to dismantle the most successful government program in history.
There is only one way to make sure that doesn't happen.