Friday, March 04, 2005

Social Security: The F-Word

No, not that F-word.

While most media observers see Bush's privatization proposal on life support, Howard Kurtz is busy performing a post-mortem:

"Anatomy of a Flop"

How did this happen? What happened to the vaunted White House political machine? A brief recap:

1. There was no great public hunger for the plan. People are generally satisfied with the retirement system, even though they're uneasy about its long-term health.

2. Bush offered few specifics during the campaign, so he can't claim a mandate.

3. The plan is complicated, making it impossible to explain in a couple of sound bites. See Hillarycare, 1994.

4. The administration had to admit that creating private accounts wouldn't do a thing to bolster the near-term solvency of Social Security. In other words, it wouldn't fix the "crisis" the president was trumpeting, at least for several decades.

5. In fact, the plan would worsen the $400-billion-plus federal deficit by requiring a trillion or two in "transition costs." That's a tough sell at a time when red ink is gushing, Medicare costs are exploding and Medicaid is on the chopping block.

6. The Democrats decided to just say no. Taking a page from Gingrich, Newt, 1994, they have stuck together, refused to compromise and generally let Republicans twist slowly in the wind. (It was interesting to see Tom DeLay complaining about how Dems won't come to the table when the House Repubs generally ignore them in pushing things through.)

7. Republicans went home to their districts and got an earful about the unpopularity of the Bush plan.

8. The polls showed the plan to be a loser, and everyone in Washington obsessively reads polls.

None of this is to suggest that the plan is dead or that a compromise can't be hammered out (although one such proposal, creating private accounts as an add-on, blows a bigger hole in the deficit while doing nothing to shore up the system). But it explains why Bush isn't having much luck pushing this boulder up the Hill.
Note that with the exception of #2, and despite the qualifier in the final paragraph, each item is written in historical past-tense. If this becomes the dominant theme of the next couple of news cycles, the president and his surrogates could be in for some serious pain during the next few days of "60 Cities in 60 Days."