Democrats in No Hurry on Reform

Posted March 8, 2005 at 6:23pm

Even as Democrats and their affiliated interest groups fight to defeat President Bush’s plan to reform Social Security, the party’s political strategists are quietly hoping the fight lingers on into 2006.

While no one interviewed for this story said a concerted strategy had been hatched to stretch the Social Security battle into the election year, almost all acknowledged that such a scenario would be a boon to their party.

“If you had your druthers it would drag out to a slow, painful death that would include getting people on the record in the House and Senate,” one Democratic operative working closely on the issue said wistfully.

The source quickly added, however, that it is “too important an issue to try and game that out.”

Democrats expressed confidence both that the president’s plan would ultimately be defeated and that it would remain a winning issue for them in the 2006 elections, regardless of when the fight over reform of the retirement system concludes.

“No matter when it goes down, this gives us something to run on,” said one Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The consultant said the vehement disagreement between President Bush and Congressional Democrats on the issue finally provides a “bright line” of demarcation between the parties that Democrats have struggled to draw in recent years.

On prescription drugs, the war in Iraq and the No Child Left Behind Act, voters perceived little apparent difference between the positions of Bush and those of Democrats, according to the source.

Behind the apparent bravado of Democrats on the issue, however, are strains of concern that Bush has convinced the American people that Social Security is a problem that if not addressed soon will only grow worse.

The natural corollary of that assumption is that if Democrats do not develop a plan of their own to fix Social Security they could once again face the tag of “obstructionist” — a label that hurt them at the ballot box in the 2002 and 2004 elections.

“There is some traction for the president in that there is a problem out there that needs to be addressed,” said a Democratic consultant. “It loses traction because people don’t think we need the big changes he is talking about.”

A memo released last week by Democratic consultants Stan Greenberg, James Carville and Bob Shrum was considerably more pessimistic about their party’s current strategy on the issue.

They argued that while voters still trust Democrats slightly more than Republicans to handle Social Security, the lack of a Democratic plan could hurt the party over the long haul.

“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 program,” they wrote. “Voters are looking for reform, change and new ideas, but Democrats seem stuck in concrete.”

Brian Jones, communications director at the Republican National Committee, echoed that sentiment.

“What you are seeing from Democrats on Social Security is an unwillingness to offer up solutions or engage in substantive debates,” Jones said.

To date, Bush has made the creation of personal accounts that would allow younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security benefits in the stock market the only “must have” in a final bill.

He put a number of options on the table to fund the $1 trillion to $2 trillion expense of carving out these accounts, a list that includes raising the retirement age or increasing the cap on earnings subject to the payroll tax.

Two Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), have already proposed plans of their own.

Graham, the most outspoken Republican in favor of bipartisan compromise, said last week that he continues to search for a Democrat to co-sponsor his bill to secure the Social Security safety net but warned of dire consequences if he does not find support across the aisle.

“If the Democratic response is ‘There is no problem and if you try to help Bush you are going to have war declared on you,’ we are going to have more Republicans [on Capitol Hill] than we can handle,” predicted Graham.

The timeline regarding Social Security legislation remains a topic of considerable debate.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) drew significant criticism within his own party when he said late last month that changes to the retirement system might be put off until 2006. He quickly reversed course, pledging “we need to do it this year.”

One high-level Republican strategist took a longer view.

“This is a nine-inning game,” the source said. “We are in the early innings still.”

Democrats insist that the GOP’s emphasis on passing a plan this year is a tacit acknowledgement of the potential danger it presents to them in the 2006 elections.

“The sooner [Republicans] pull the plug the better it is for them politically,” said one Democratic strategist. “The longer this goes, the more it hurts them.”