Mudcat Café message #1426186 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #62901   Message #1426186
Posted By: Amos
03-Mar-05 - 03:40 PM
Thread Name: BS: Popular Views of the Bush Administration
Subject: RE: BS: Popular Views of the Bush Administration
Express Train to Disaster

by David Corn

published by

Express Train to Disaster

There I was, with several other journalists and a federal commissioner, at a Washington party, playing the latest parlor game of the capital city: What does W. want and why does he want it? That is, does he truly crave privatized retirement accounts? Does he hope to end Social Security as we know it? Might he settle for tinkering and declare victory? Does he know what he really wants? As we traded theories and notions—and no one, not even the newsweekly journalist who covers Social Security day in and out, had a good idea of Bush's ultimate aim—the hostess came by. "You're not talking about Social Security, are you?" she said with a groan, as if we were ruining her party. "Well," one of us replied earnestly, "what else is there to talk about?"

Indeed. Among those of us who earn a living trying to make sense of politics and policy within Washington, Social Security is the A-list item. It has shoved aside the war in Iraq—and everything else. Last month, Congress passed legislation that could end most multi-state class action lawsuits—essentially handing a get-out-of-court-free card to manufacturers of defective products, negligent HMOs, sleazy credit card companies and other less-than-honorable residents of Corporate America—and the debate came and went in what seemed to be seven seconds. The deal was done by the time the talking heads had a chance to shout at each other about it. The Social Security debate has sucked up all the oxygen.

Moreover, the substantive debate over Bush's Social Security plan has already been exhausted. The Social Security battle has, in a way, become like the abortion battle—a standoff between two fundamentally different philosophical values (in this case, the prudent wisdom of social insurance versus the possibilities of in-the-markets-we-trust faith). Each side has already run out of arguments. We're in constant-replay mode. There's a crisis. No, there isn't. The system will be broke by 2018. No, the trust fund IOUs won't run out until 2052. Bush's foes have drawn blood by forcing him to admit that the salvation he has been promoting for years—using Social Security funds to create private accounts for individual—does not address the long-term funding gap. Yet we all know we will be listening to the same lines over and over in the months ahead.

But what changes is the politics. That's where the mystery is. Figuring out the ultimate policy compromise—probably a blend of increasing taxes, slightly raising the retirement age, and restraining benefits for some recipients—is easier that sussing out the politics and Bush's intentions.

There are the exit-strategy analysts, those observers who discern signs that Bush is hankering for a retreat with honor. Who could blame him? There are plenty of ill omens for the Pirates of Privatization. Democrats on Capitol Hill are disseminating a list of dozens of GOP legislators who have voiced skepticism regarding partial privatization of Social Security. During last week's congressional recess, only about one-third of House Republicans held town hall meetings on Social Security. Tom DeLay told the Houston Chronicle , "I am very disappointed about that….It's obvious that we can't accomplish this unless the American people want us to." Treasury Secretary John Snow acknowledged Bush currently lacks the necessary support among Republicans on the Hill. GOP Sen. Arlen Specter has declared he is "frankly skeptical" about Bush's approach. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley said Bush has yet to convince the public. Newt Gingrich has advised Republicans to relaunch the Social Security issue because Americans have not accepted Bush's argument that a crisis is at hand. And recent polls are not encouraging for Bush; NPR found that only 30 percent favor his proposed changes for Social Security. According to a Marist poll, 41 percent believe congressional Democrats can best handle Social Security; Bush was endorsed by only 16 percent, and congressional GOPers won the backing of 25 percent. A Zogby poll found 63 percent disapproved of Bush's handling of Social Security.

No wonder privateers are worried. Writing in the Weekly Standard , Stephen Moore of the Free Enterprise Fund bemoaned talk of a Bush compromise. He was particularly upset that Bush had raised the subject of lifting the cap on wages that are taxed for Social Security. "The danger now," Moore warned, "is that Bush, who wants a legacy 'victory' on Social Security will ultimately sign a Social Security bill that raises taxes and drops or guts personal accounts." And what have been the big PR initiatives of the let's-privatize posse recently? First, USA Next, a right-wing outfit with various ties to the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, attacked the AARP for supposedly not supporting the troops and advocating gay marriage. (The AARP does not support gay marriage; it is not anti-troops.) This sleazy assault divided the free-marketeers, with Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute blasting USA Next for its in-the-gutter sideswipe. Then the White House announced that Bush will be campaigning for Social Security change with nine-year-old Noah McCullough, who has made a name for himself as an expert in presidential history trivia. That ought to turn the tide. (Word also leaked out that SpongeBob SquarePants was set to join Bush and McCullough on this tour—until James Dobson queered the deal.) Next the administration announced it was setting up a "war room" at the treasury department to coordinate and refine its Social Security message. (Declare war on Social Security, then wait months before establishing a "war room"? These guys should know better.)

With the indicators not looking strong at the moment, can it be that Bush will look for a way out? Step back, let Congress craft something much different than what he envisioned, sign the damn thing and declare victory? ("Today I am so glad that Congress followed my lead and…") But this gets back to the question of what Bush really is after. Is it a political win he can dress up? Or a transformation (for the worse) of the nation's core social insurance program? After five years of pushing private accounts as the cure-all for the "crisis," Bush finally acknowledged in his recent State of the Union speech that these accounts—which will cost trillions of dollars—do not address the projected Social Security gap to come in several decades. But are these accounts still the main thing for him? Will he fight to the last pensioner for them?

In the past, Bush has been at different times a stubborn champion of wrongheaded ideas and a pragmatic dealmaker. In the later category, he signed a corporate crime bill that was weaker than it should have been but stronger than he wanted and pronounced himself (falsely) a corporate crimebuster. He also cut a deal with Sen. Ted Kennedy on the No Child Left Behind legislation and pissed off his conservative allies. (That deal was a lousy one—for Kennedy, too. A recent report concluded the legislation has been a disaster.) But when Bush entered the White House, he refused to listen to those who advised against a big tax cut (especially one tilted toward the wealthy) and who noted that public opinion surveys did not show Americans hungering for such tax cuts. Bush plowed ahead and succeeded in racking up trillions of dollars in government debt so the rich could have more. And when it came to the run-up to the Iraq war, Bush never left himself an escape route. He committed himself and ended up with a mess that may or may not eventually work out. (Polls this week show that about 54 percent of Americans believe the war was not worth the costs.)