My advice to the Democratic Party as it gears up for the approaching skirmish over Social Security: Put a leash on Ted Kennedy. If that sounds too cruel, I’d settle for an airtight, industrial-strength muzzle. It wouldn’t need to stay on long — just until the party learns how to keep order in its rank and file. He can even remove it before bedtime. Either way, if Democrats want any hope of saving Social Security from a GOP hijacking, the Massachusetts firebrand will need to be kept quiet.

Sam Singer

Kennedy’s post-election persona has run amuck. His manic politicking — once confined to committee hearings and half-empty Senate chambers — has drifted into the mainstream media. Just last week, C-SPAN junkies across the country watched a flushed Kennedy deliver his “Democratic blueprint for America’s future” to an audience at a widely promoted National Press Club luncheon. During his hour-long outburst, the 72-year-old lawmaker tore into the White House’s yet-to-be-released entitlement plan, slamming the president for propagating what he argued was a fictitious Social Security scare. “We have an administration that falsely hypes almost every issue as a crisis,” he said, insisting that “the biggest threat to Social Security today is not the retirement of the baby boomers – it’s George Bush.” Unremitting, Kennedy went on to call the private-sector investment plan “a nightmare for senior citizens and a bonanza for Wall Street” and branded reform-receptive Democrats as turncoats and “Republican clones.”

Now I’m no expert, but when it comes to Social Security reform — a legislative scuffle shaping up to be one of the most momentous of the decade — instinct tells me Ted Kennedy was not the chap party strategists had in mind when mulling over a policy spokesman. God only knows what went flying in Harry Reid’s office, the recently appointed Senate Minority leader, when Kennedy dropped the most tired political tagline of them all; calling on Democrats to stand up to the Bush administration’s “politics of fear.” Reid, who has gone to great pains to polish the party’s dented image, has complained about its lack of self-control in the public sphere. While Kennedy’s angry invectives may have drawn a spotlight, they did little to address the party’s identity crisis. With no cohesive national message, an undisciplined command structure and a Ted Kennedy temper tantrum in place of a practical policy statement on entitlements, the Democratic Party is in no shape to come to blows over Social Security. But as political happenstance has it, in spite of all of its punishing slipups, the party may very well walk out of the tussle without a scratch.

Though the Social Security package will undoubtedly be pushed with all the White House’s muscle, early speculation has the bill entering the Capitol Building dead on arrival. Social Security reform has trisected the Republican Party, and as the debate heats up, the prospects of a winning vote margin continue to shrink.

Analysts have isolated a divergince in perspectives believed to be at the source of the conflict. From his second-term vantage point, Bush is looking out at the birth of his long-coveted “ownership society,” a consumer-friendly social order where tax cuts are permanent and government entitlements like Medicare and Social Security have been soaked into the private sector. But for many House Republicans (estimates range from 20-40), the White House’s long-term domestic agenda is a political powder keg not to bre approached. While the President is digging in for a policy footprint that will go recognized for decades to come, recently seated House conservatives are having trouble seeing past 2006.

But winning back his party will require muchmore than a pep talk. Bush’s plan is also taking on fire at the policy level. The exact details of the president’s privatization proposal haven’t been released, but insider guesswork projects the policy would allow workers under the age of 55 to invest somewhere between two and 3 percent of their income (around two thirds of what they would currently forfeit in payroll taxes) into personal savings accounts. It is here where Bush has been blindsided by the far-right — forced to defend the merits of his proposal to a growing insurgency of once-presumed privatization allies. Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) and Wis. Rep. Paul Ryan want legislation enabling recipients to invest all of their payroll taxes, and thus far, have laid claim to powerful allies like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a ranking conservative on the Health, Education Labor and Pensions committee.

Bush plans to bankroll the overhaul by tweaking the way the program adjusts retirement benefits. Instead of using real wage growth, the new plan would peg allowance increases to the more mildly paced rate of inflation — a recalculation that would reduce aggregate benefits by almost 40 percent over the next five decades. According to proponents, that extra money can be used to pay down the program’s transition costs, while individual investment returns offset, and hopefully even exceed, net benefit cuts. But many Republicans disagree, and thus far have refused to support any proposal that would slash benefits or up payroll taxes. This opposition camp — appropriately dubbed the “free lunchers” — boasts a relatively large membership of household conservative names like Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp, and seems to enjoy the public relation perks. Even Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), one of the president’s most devoted allies on tax reform, has helped herself to the free lunch.

The Democrats should consider themselves blessed. Just when all hope seemed lost, the GOP spit Social Secuirty right back at the President. With the intensity of the current intra-party gridlock, a reform proposal would be lucky to make it out of committee by the end of 2005. Democrats should savor this stroke of good fortune, but they can’t push their luck. The party needs order almost as much as it needs a powerful image, and neither will come without effective leadership.

Singer can be reached at singers@umich.edu

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