February 07, 2005

Game Plan

Is Mickey Kaus onto something? He thinks Bush's strategy on Social Security amounts to one giant head fake. (I'm reprinting the whole post because Slate's permalinks freak me out):
If you were a Republican congressperson terrified of getting clobbered over Bush's "personal accounts" proposal for Social Security, what would be your biggest wish? Not that Bush fight for the idea, or that he not fight for the idea. Your wish would be that whatever Bush does, the fight be fought quickly, within a few months--leaving plenty of time to recover before the 2006 mid-term election.

That is why the reports that Bush is pushing for an ambitiously expedited consideration of his proposal aren't necessarily a sign of strength, or of a cunning high-pressure Rovian strategy for victory. They may be a strategy to lose quickly, with minimal harm done to the Republican majority. ... And maybe this get-it-over-with realism, not grandiose ambition, explains Bush's decision to pursue Social Security revision before tax revision.
On one level, the idea that Bush wants to "lose quickly, lose with honor" seems dubious. Right now is probably the last, best time for Republicans to phase out Social Security for a long while. New Trustees' reports are going to emerge fairly soon pushing the doomsday date outwards—thanks to high economic growth over the past few years. (To give just one example: The Trustee's "low-cost projections," in which the Trust Fund would stay stuffed until 2080 and beyond, predicted 2.8 percent productivity growth in '04. In fact we got a healthy 4.1, though it fell of late. Um, real wages actually fell in 2004, which is not good news, but, um, presumably that trend's not sustainable forever.)

But who knows. Maybe the White House will beat a retreat. In that case, maybe it would have been better off for the Democrats to dither around for awhile, let the Bush administration start proposing massive benefit cuts, and then attack and block the reform with a united front. Get Republicans on record for supporting benefit cuts, and then cudgel 'em to death in the midterms. I don't know. That's tricky. It's also risky. A sense of inevitability on Social Security phase-out, I think, would have gained a momentum of its own. So if Kaus is right—and I don't think he is—but if he is, it's sad that Democrats didn't spring the trap quite right, but at least they saved Social Security, learned how to put up a menacing opposition face, hopefully got a confidence boost, and can start whispering rumors that Bush is, in fact, a lame duck.

Now in order to prove the lame duck thesis, Democrats should start pushing for immigration reform, which will all but force the president to grow the necessary feathers and beak. The chance of lame-duckism, meanwhile, will build pressure for the White House to tap Dick Cheney as the presidential nominee in '08, which would be great on so many levels. Er, or something.
-- Brad Plumer 12:13 AM || ||