Last week, I spent State of the Union night “dial testing” a group of independents’ reactions as they watched President Bush’s big speech, and then we talked about those reactions in a short focus group. Having done this for several years, the 2005 response took me by surprise. [IMGCAP(1)]
If Bush’s previous SOTUs were solid base hits, this year’s was an unequivocal home run. Even most of those independents, who expressed a dislike for Bush going in, reacted very positively to his words and proposals.
Does one speech signal a sea change in voters’ attitudes? No, but the positive response ought to sound alarm bells for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and soon Howard Dean. But it probably won’t because the debate over Social Security reform is a perfect illustration of the philosophical differences between the two major parties.
Republicans are seeking Social Security reform centered on individual choice and financial security by making the system permanently sound. Democrats remain tied to the old government-control paradigm that defines reform as raising taxes to fix the problem. That is if they are willing to admit there is a crisis at all.
Just a few short years ago, Democrats were lining up behind President Bill Clinton’s “Save Social Security for the 21st Century” campaign.
In 1998, Clinton called Social Security a “demographic crisis” and said, “In 2030 … the Social Security trust fund supposedly will go broke unless we change something.” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), now one of Bush’s harshest critics, said, “the sooner Congress acts to avert this crisis [Social Security] the easier and less painful it will be.”
A year later, Reid jumped on the bandwagon: “Most of us have no problem with taking a small amount of the Social Security proceeds and putting it into the private sector.” Back then, most Congressional Democrats praised Clinton’s focus on the looming crisis.
But not today. Although the dismal projections of the system’s inevitable fiscal shortfalls have changed little since 1998 and Congress has taken no action to shore up the system, Reid now says, “There is no emergency on Social Security,” and his “just say it ain’t so” strategy has been adopted by most Capitol Hill Democrats.
Regardless of the personal and economic costs of inaction, Democrats refuse to admit that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s most lasting legacy needs some 21st century updating because Social Security has provided them with a potent political issue for decades.
One can argue the merits and demerits of various Social Security fixes proposed by the administration, think tanks, academics and members of both parties on the Hill, and that’s what the president is suggesting: a bipartisan, good-faith search for a solution. But asserting that Social Security isn’t in trouble is not just cynical politics, it’s irresponsible public policy.
If Social Security were an old rowboat, we’d be bailing water in 2018; but by 2042 or ’52, we’ll be handing out life preservers. The truth is that in just 13 short years, the system will begin paying out more than it brings in. That means funds from general tax revenues will be needed to pay the difference, and that takes a surplus. If nothing is done by the mid-2020s, that surplus will need to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars to bridge the gap.
Even if the Social Security debt is paid off (unlikely) by 2042, there will simply not be enough in the Treasury to continue current benefit levels. It will be our children who will face 20 percent to 30 percent cuts in benefits.
Yet despite this alarming scenario, Democrats have apparently decided that opposing Social Security reform generally and this president specifically is a politically winning strategy. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) took an obstructionist position on Capitol Hill and in the presidential campaign, refusing to even acknowledge that Social Security is in crisis. He lost those voters 65 and older by 5 points after Al Gore won the same group by 3 points in 2000. For the past four years, whatever Bush proposed, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) opposed and took his party with him. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is the result.
Reid, Pelosi and the others bashing Bush and downplaying the crisis are already in danger of losing the debate. A post-SOTU Newsweek poll found that people believe by 65 percent to 26 percent that Social Security is facing a crisis.
In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken after the speech, a wide majority, 74 percent, said they found Bush’s argument convincing; and in a Social Security right track/wrong track question, a solid 66 percent described Bush’s policies as on the right track.
A CBS poll found that 80 percent of those who watched approved of Bush’s proposals.
The polls also show that Bush still has a heck of a campaign ahead of him to sell his vision, but his five-state tour last week was a great kickoff, especially in contrast to what amounted to a Democratic “carp-a-thon” in the finest traditions of the Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales nominations.
In his response to the State of the Union, Reid told the story of a 10-year-old boy named Devon who approached him in a restaurant and said, “Sen. Reid, when I grow up I want to be just like you.” If Reid’s view of Social Security wins the day, Devon’s dream can’t come true because Social Security will be there for Reid. The same can’t be said for Devon.
David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.