What is happening in the Social Security debate reflects what has happened to the national Democrats.
Think about it.
Periodically since the 1960s the cry has gone up, We have to fix Social Security! With the facts obvious to just about anyone with his head screwed on right, just about everyone has agreed. And from time to time Congress has passed palliatives that have proved to be just that: palliatives.
Yet as estimates and projections of unfunded liabilities in not only Social Security but Medicare and (now) Medicaid have risen to alarming levels, roles have reversed. In 1998, President Clinton, noting, This fiscal crisis in Social Security affects every generation, said famously: Save Social Security first! Three years later the revered Democratic Sen. Patrick Moynihan of New York endorsed as a partial Social Security solution small personal "add-on" accounts for which public enthusiasm would grow as the size of the accounts increased.
As President Bush picked up the Social Security cudgel, Democratic sentiment to fix it began running fast the other way. Maybe the Democrats grew faint at the very idea of Republican repair of the most hallowed Democratic program. Maybe they began blanching at even the suggestion of working with Republicans and the despised Bush. Or maybe they went to their cupboard of ideas and found it bare.
At any rate, this is the situation today.
Though some Democrats do acknowledge that the future of Social Security poses a problem, few dare to embrace Bush's word: crisis. Though the Democrats are good at opposing Republican fix-it ideas, they offer practically zero of their own. Discussing Social Security the other day, veteran Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville issued a memo to "progressives" lamenting profound voter concern about the Democrats who appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose.
Revaluing party unity upward so as to deny the Republicans any successes, Democrats are ripping as disloyalty any indication of bipartisanship on Social Security reform - notably, these days, regarding the party's most conspicuous odd-man-out, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 vice-presidential nominee.
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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