Frequently in the heat of a legislative battle it is useful to step back to gain perspective on the larger political environs. The president is currently engaged in a titanic political struggle over personal retirement accounts with Democrats desperate to deal him a political defeat. Now is the time for the administration to deploy the most effective weapon in their arsenal: a pure personal accounts proposal, such as the one introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., which makes Social Security permanently solvent without raising taxes, cutting benefits or hiking the retirement age.
A pure personal accounts plan that offers workers the prospect of higher benefits and a guarantee they won't receive less than they are promised under current law is the only effective way to overcome the demagoguery of the left. Few Democrats would oppose such an idea, the single most effective way to empower workers and make them owners. Most Democrats I've spoken to agree essentially with former President Bill Clinton and the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that some kind of personal retirement accounts would be a good idea.
The problem with the Democrats is that they have been lured into a risky political strategy by their leadership to attempt to outfox President Bush and the American people. The Democratic leadership has its members, especially in the Senate, believing they can demagogue the issue this year and next, use the fear and anger they generate against Republicans to regain the Senate in 2006 (as they did in 1986 when they ran against the Republican attempt to cut Social Security cost-of-living allowances) and then parlay that victory into the White House in 2008. The Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, revealed the preposterous lengths to which they are willing to go to defeat President Bush on personal accounts when he accused him of wanting to "destroy Social Security."
I'll give the Democratic leaders credit, though: To date they have done a pretty good job of putting Republican advocates of personal retirement accounts on the defensive. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if - repeat if- their stonewall strategy works and if - repeat if - they regain the White House, they certainly would embrace personal accounts and enact them in 2009 with the bipartisan support of Republicans. Their disdain for market-oriented solutions, however, is likely to do them in.
Four years is a long time to play this dangerous game, and the voting public will see through it. Too many voters want personal accounts. That's why some Democrats are beginning to refine their tactics from an outright stonewall against all personal accounts to drawing fine distinctions between the type of personal accounts they can accept.
For now, however, no matter how accommodating President Bush tries to be, he will discover that he can never concede enough to satisfy the left. He or top-ranking congressional Republicans already have put on the table for discussion tax increases, benefit cuts and hikes in the retirement age, and some Republicans are even suggesting a willingness to do some or all of these things, in the name of "solvency," even before they will ask for a vote on personal accounts. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who wants to increase payroll taxes, even called personal accounts a "side show" last week.
My guess is that the president couldn't possibly find enough to give the Democrats in this political environment. Even if he wanted a "victory" so badly that he was willing to give them everything on the table, he wouldn't be able to induce them to accept the deal and vote for personal accounts. Ironically, the harder the president pursues a bipartisan accommodation to produce a "victory" on personal accounts, the harder it will be to round up a sufficient number of Democrats to vote with him, precisely because their prime objective is to deny him his victory on Social Security.
My advice to the administration, therefore, is to go over the heads of the Democrats in Congress, as he has begun to do. Let them know he doesn't feel desperately in need of their votes. Encourage and work with the House Republicans to pass the best possible pure personal accounts bill they can muster, unencumbered by anything that could be used against House Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections, such as tax increases, benefit cuts and hikes in the retirement age.
There will be time enough for compromise if and when the Senate takes up the matter and again in conference committee. The last thing House Republicans want is to be forced to go on record voting in favor of one of these poison pills, only to have the Senate refuse to take action. Then they will be stuck having to defend their vote during the campaign the way Republican senators had to defend their vote to increase COLAs in 1986.
Under the guidance of Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and strong support from the president, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif.; Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Jim McCrery, R-La.; and Ryan can craft and pass a pure personal accounts bill that both will inoculate Republicans against Democratic attack and serve as a catalyst to action when it goes over to the Senate.
I am confident that if the president and his party move forward with a pure personal accounts bill and the Democratic Party continues to demagogue Social Security, it will be the Democrats who lose with the American people.