WASHINGTON—Can you beat something with nothing in the biggest political-policy battle of the year?
Democrats think they can. They're attacking President Bush's proposal to partly privatize Social Security and refusing to offer any plan of their own to fix the system.
While they're having some initial success putting Bush on the defensive—polls show public support for Bush's approach slipping—the Democrats' strategy could backfire, both politically and in terms of influencing the outcome.
Two influential party thinkers warned recently that the Democrats' stance is enhancing their party's image as standing for nothing, which doesn't bode well for future elections.
"Voters are looking for reform, change and new ideas. But Democrats seem stuck in concrete," James Carville and Stanley Greenberg warned in a recent memo.
Both sides agree that Social Security faces a long-term funding problem. By 2018, according to system trustees, its annual pension-benefit costs will exceed its annual income from wage taxes. By mid-century, taxes will cover only 73 percent of annual costs unless changes are made.
Essentially, Bush insists that any deal must include the creation of new private investment accounts funded from Social Security, that tax-rate increases are unacceptable and that virtually everything else is fair game. The Democrats say private accounts are unacceptable and that everything else is on the table.
The difference: Bush is daring to tackle the thorny issue with a proposal—even if it's controversial, only partial and would accelerate the system's solvency problem—while Democrats propose only to block action. Obstruction may not be a winning hand.
Democratic leaders in Congress insist that Bush's private accounts would disrupt the Social Security system's finances so badly that, until he abandons that idea, they have no reason to propose the kinds of unpopular tax increases or benefit cuts that are needed to restore the system's long-term solvency. That would only open them to attack, they say.
"We are focusing on the president's proposal. He put it out there," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who's leading his party's efforts to win House seats in 2006 as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"The idea that Republicans are now whining that Democrats do not have a plan on Social Security is the height of absurdity," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the second-ranking House Democratic leader. "Where, after all, is the House Republicans' plan? In fact, they don't have one."
But several Republicans are proposing plans that go beyond Bush's, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Rep. Clay Shaw of Florida.
They offer such ideas as voluntary private accounts funded outside Social Security's revenue stream, raising the retirement age for when people could claim full Social Security benefits from 67 to 68, cutting benefits for those who take them early at age 62, adjusting benefits to reflect longer life expectancy, raising the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes and shielding lower-paid workers from benefit cuts.
"The Democrats don't have a plan," said Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority leader. "They have one strategy: Blame Bush. And we all know how well that's worked out for them over the last four years."
Carville and Greenberg, among the architects of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential election, all but agreed. In their memo, they cautioned that their party was winning the short-term battle over private accounts, but failing to inflict any serious political damage on Bush.
"We think the answer lies with voters' deeper feelings about the Democrats, who appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose," they wrote.
In a recent poll, Greenberg found that just 44 percent of likely voters said they thought the Democrats have new ideas for addressing the country's problems, a political weakness that he said "may be at the heart of the Social Security debate."
At the same time, a majority or plurality of likely voters gave Bush higher marks than the Democrats in five of six traits associated with the debate, including "has proposals and positions that would protect Social Security" and "is willing to work with both political parties to find a solution."
"Some will focus on the faltering support for Bush's Social Security proposal, but we are more struck by his survival as somebody who at least has a purpose and ideas, even if wrong-headed," Carville and Greenberg wrote. "Republicans are winning the battle of seriousness even as they lose the specifics of the Social Security battle."
For more on the Carville-Greenberg memo, go to www.democracycorps.com
The Greenberg poll of 1001 likely voters was conducted Feb. 13-17 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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