Friday, February 04, 2005

The Pattern

We see, in the Social Security debate, another manifestation of The Pattern.

On every substantive public policy issue, President Bush introduces his Big Idea as a response to current or recent events. The roll-out includes grave warnings about the perils of inaction.

When introducing his first tax cut package in 2001, the president argued that the Clinton surplus meant that the American people had been overtaxed. The surplus was not "the government's money," he proclaimed. It was "the people's money." The surplus was bad for the economy, he insisted. It could lead to higher interest rates, among other things, making it harder for small businesses to acquire the capital they needed to create jobs.

When making the case for invading Iraq, the president and his aides asserted that Saddam had weapons capable of killing Americans on a historic scale. The Butcher of Baghdad could, upon making a decision to do so, deploy those weapons within 45 minutes. We knew where the weapons were. The smoking gun could be "a mushroom cloud."

In arguing for the dismantling (and, make no mistake - that's what it is) of Social Security, Bush says the system is fundamentally unsound. The only way to save it is to withdraw some of the money now being used to pay benefits and invest them in the stock market. If we do nothing, Social Security will be "flat bust" within decades.

In each of these examples and in any number of others, what follows the roll-out happens almost as if it was written into a script. Critics are demeaned, slandered or simply ignored. Questions are answered incompletely or dishonestly if at all.

Then, the facts begin to contradict the president's grand pronouncements. The president's theses for change shift to conform to the new sets of facts.

When the stock market crashes and the budget surplus disappears, tax cuts become the cure. Supply-side tax cuts will give struggling businesses the capital they need to rehire laid-off workers and create millions of new jobs besides. Eventually, trickle-down economics will lead to even greater revenue for the government and the surplus will be restored. When this argument is challenged by the performance of the actual economy (versus the one in Bush's fevered dreams), the president tells us it will eventually work. We just need to make the tax cuts permanent.

When we find no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, the spread of democracy becomes the retroactive case for regime change.

Now, with Social Security, the walk-back has already begun. Even the president's most loyal retainers are on the record contradicting his insistence that privatization will solve the looming trust fund shortfall. They acknowledge that future cuts in benefits, in addition to trillions of borrowed dollars, will be necessary to mitigate the immediate deficit caused by diverting payroll taxes into private investment accounts. Watch for the rationale to shift as the press and the public begin to understand the nature of this shell game.

The key to seeing The Pattern is in understanding that in each of the above examples, the case for change is being made to support an existing ideological goal.

Movement conservatives share an ideological passion for reducing taxes. It does not matter if tax cuts will grow the deficit or reduce it. It doesn't matter if they will create jobs or not. Tax cuts are not a means to an end, they are the end.

The neocons who enjoyed influence in Bush's first term agitated for the forced removal of Saddam Hussein at least since the end of Desert Storm. 9/11 opened a door and Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al strolled right through it. No WMDs? No matter. Freedom is on the march. No connection between Saddam and 9/11 after all? Whatever. Freedom. Marchin'.

Social Security might be different. The move to privatize Social Security conflicts with the tactile self-interest of its constituents. The push-back from Bush's critics is gaining volume and velocity. Even members of the Faint Hearted Faction of Democratic politicians (mucho props to Josh Marshall) won't commit to anything more than statements about their open-mindedness. As relates to The Pattern, there isn't much rhetorical cover for Bush on this one.

At some point I think the president is going to have to do one of two things:

* Modify his proposal so drastically that it will amount to nothing more than a saving of political face, or

* Defend his current plan on philosophical (read: ideological) grounds.

The former is a victory for privatization opponents. Simultaneously, Bush will surrender and declare victory. Social Security will remain fundamentally unmolested.

The latter approach will be met with a loud "WHO CARES? WHERE'S MY CHECK?" Democrats and Republicans who have to run for re-election next year will flap their arms and fly to the moon if necessary, to get away from a second-term president who wants to dismantle the cornerstone of The New Deal just because it's the ideologically pure thing to do.

It shouldn't be long before we get an idea as to which option Bush is going to choose.