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In Social Security Talks, Democrats Ask for Seat at a Separate Table

For the past week, Democrats, in a series of highly choreographed attacks, have been vilifying the president’s Social Security reform initiative. They have criticized the President Bush’s “plan,” which actually doesn’t exist, claiming it will cut 40 percent of current benefits and “destroy Social Security” while cynically avoiding any talk of an alternative Democratic plan.

Much of the media has tagged along on this “mathematical mystery tour,” portraying the president as a man on the political ropes with the crowd turning against him. What the Democrats and the media don’t understand is that Bush has already won the first round.

Early in the Social Security debate, Democrats argued that Social Security wasn’t a problem. Even the likes of James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stanley Greenberg have seen the folly of the Democrats’ initial “denial strategy.”

They wrote in their latest Democracy Corps analysis, “To say there is no problem, simply puts the Democrats out of the conversation for the great majority of the country that want political leaders to secure this very important government retirement program. Voters are looking for reform, change and new ideas, but Democrats seem stuck in concrete.” On this point, I agree with them.

Bush, in his State of the Union address, began to lay the predicate for the Social Security discussion. Polling data nearly across the board shows that Bush’s Social Security blitz in the past few weeks has convinced the majority of Americans that Social Security needs fixing now.

At the end of November, in a New Models survey, Social Security was cited as the top issue by only 9 percent. Now, it has reached 18 percent — not far behind foreign affairs/terrorism and jobs/economy. The fact that the Democratic Congressional leadership has finally admitted the problem and has begun to talk about finding a bipartisan solution is progress.

But it is only the first phase. Now comes the hard part: finding and selling a solution. What that solution will look like remains unclear, and the Democrats like it that way.

They have been forced to grudgingly admit Social Security is in trouble; but if last week’s statements from their Congressional leadership are any indication, talk of working with the president to find a bipartisan solution is little more than a public relations tactic. On the New York stop of the mystery tour, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) charged that Bush’s personal accounts idea was a “wet kiss for Wall Street.”

On the Las Vegas stop, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) laid down the gauntlet: “We’re happy to work with the president … but not until he takes privatization off the table. We are not going to negotiate with ourselves until the president takes privatization off the board, period.”

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert asked Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), “So as long as the president insists private and personal accounts are on the table, you will not sit at the table?” Durbin’s reply? “I don’t believe that we can.” We’ll call that a no.

On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace tried, in vain, to get House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to offer up even one Democrat idea for fixing Social Security. Six times he posed the question and got nothing but platitudes about former President Ronald Reagan and former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and promises “to come together in a bipartisan way at the table.” That would be separate tables, I guess.

Of course, there’s a reason for Pelosi’s reticence. She knows what the Democrats will serve up as a solution — a big tax increase, and it will be about as popular as Brussels sprouts. How do we know? Because it’s the Democrats’ standard operating procedure.

Got a problem with the economy? Raise taxes. A problem with education? Raise taxes. Social Security needs fixing? Raise taxes.

Their strategy is simple. Never offer a Democratic proposal to fix Social Security, at least in public, and hope for one of two possible outcomes: the failure of the president’s Social Security initiative, which they will try to use to their political advantage in the 2006 elections (the outcome of choice). Or, an agreement to raise taxes to save Social Security, done under the political cover of a bipartisan solution.

But there is one snag to this cynical strategy. Bush may still have a long way to go to sell his ideas, but he begins the second phase of his initiative winning the battle on “Who do you trust?”

A recent National Public Radio survey (Feb. 15-17) asked people whom they trusted on a series of Social Security questions — Bush or the Democrats. Bush won five of six questions: Among them, “Who do you trust to make the right kinds of changes?” Bush 48 percent to 40 percent. “Who is offering the right kind of ideas?” Bush 44 percent to 38 percent. And “Who is willing to work with both political parties to find a solution?” Bush with a whopping 51 percent to 33 percent.

A recent Democracy Corps survey (Feb. 13-17) found that voters believe Democrats are “too willing to raise taxes” by a margin of 55 percent to 41 percent and disagreed, 53 percent to 44 percent, that Democrats have “new ideas for addressing the country’s problems.”

It’s true that most polls show Bush’s personal account initiative running into interference. This second phase, selling his solutions to Social Security, is made much more difficult by the serious and complex nature of the issue. The solutions won’t be simple to craft or explain. All the more reason for Democrats to put politics aside and join the conversation.

Some have. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) told CNN’s “Late Edition” on Sunday: “So at some point we’ve got to stop criticizing each other and sit at the table and work out this problem. … Every year we wait to come up with a solution to the Social Security problem [it] costs our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren $600 billion dollars more.”

Unfortunately, I fear you can invite Democratic leaders to the table, but you can’t make them take a seat.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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