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May 13, 2005

why the Democrats must tackle entitlements

I understand the tactical argument for allowing Republicans to impale themselves on the President's Social Security proposal. Republicans have put themselves in a position where they must either claim that they can create private accounts at no net cost to the Treasury (a claim the exposes them to powerful criticism), or else admit the real costs of the proposal, in which case they must defend unpopular tax increases or benefit cuts. If the Democrats were to introduce a real plan of their own, it would also necessarily contain new taxes and/or benefit cuts, and then the situation would be muddy. They have a rationale for not proposing a plan (Social Security is not in a crisis), and it's convenient for them to leave the Republican proposal as the only option that attracts public attention.

However, imagine that the Democrats' best-case scenario comes to pass. Not only do they defeat the President's plan in Congress (probably in the Senate), but they make Republicans so unpopular that the GOP loses a national election--either in 2006 or in 2008. Is this scenario a victory? Not at all. As long as the Democrats lack a mandate for some alternative radical change in social policy, their tactical maneuvering will merely protect the status quo. But the status quo means slow national decline, as middle-class retirement entitlements plus debt service eat up a growing majority of the whole federal budget, the economy is constrained as we face a new wave of competition with China and India, and there are no funds available to address poverty, education, environmental protection, crime-prevention, or urban renewal. This decline would not be like the one that occurred in Western Europe after World War II, when major powers lost their global privileges but protected their own least advantaged increasingly well. This would be a decline that hit the poor hardest.

In any case, I'm not confident that what I called the "best-case scenario" will come to pass. I don't believe that Democrats and liberals have a reputation for problem-solving right now. In fact, the Democratic base itself seems discouraged about the potential of government. If the relatively liberal or progressive party lacks a reputation for problem-solving, then people will always vote for the more conservative alternative, no matter how much they dislike its record. Given the choice between no solutions and no solutions, voters will choose the party that is likely to hold down taxes--as we learned last November.

Perhaps it would make sense for Democrats to embrace a two-stage plan. In Stage One, they would let the Republicans run rapidly off a cliff. In Stage Two, they would propose a unified alternative. During Stage Two (by the way), the Democrats' headline needn't be "social security reform"; social security should be considered in the context of overall federal domestic spending. But the Democrats would need to explain how they propose to balance federal budgets as the Baby Boom retires.

While Stage Two can be postponed for a little while, a long delay will be fatal. It takes years to develop, vet, and build support for an ambitious, unified agenda. The Bush plan may not be going anywhere, but it could occupy attention for a year or more. By that time, the Democrats' would have run out of time to develop a vision for 2006, and 2008 would be alarmingly close.

May 13, 2005 12:14 PM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


But ... Democratic skepticism about the possibility of positive change is almost certainly a result of a change in leadership. Should the GOP implode and lose a national election, followed by legislative victories for the Democratic party, the trust government index would almost certainly increase.

May 13, 2005 5:22 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Nick Beaudrot

Part of the problem is that the process of changing administrations -- the process of campaigning and voting -- are seen to be so corrupt as to taint all parties. And that's just the part of our government which is subject to election. The agencies and their off-shoots, "K Street," and everything else that makes up what is perceived to be the federal government is perceived as gargantuan, covered with cancerous growths, manipulated and even controlled by corporations but unresponsive to citizens... And on and on. That's what I'd like to see the Democrats address, not try to slip around the backside of the problem.

May 15, 2005 3:36 PM | Comments (2) | posted by PW

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