April 20, 2005

About a President

The president holds up his country as the model democracy. His right-wing supporters believe his biggest strength is advancing western ideals through robust foreign policy (the biggest example of this being his controversial but initially domestically popular stance on Iraq). Now though, he is achieving significantly less political success with his signature domestic issue. Members of his party are openly frustrated at his failure to sell voters on the major change he proposes. No one doubts that he has focused the country’s attention on the issue—but his approach stinks of failure, and it could lead to his own political downfall.

I’m talking, of course, about Jacques Chirac and the European constitution. 

When I first wrote about this topic, surveys were just beginning to indicate that French voters might veto the historical treaty. That trend has since intensified. Last Thursday night, Jacques Chirac held a televised “debate” with journalists and 83 pre-selected young people. The event was designed to encourage the nation to vote Oui in the upcoming constitutional referendum. The day after, the margin worsened to 56% against. His performance was “an embarrassment,” and what’s more, backers of the constitution fear that many people will vote against it just to express their displeasure with his administration.

Maybe the president should just sit this debate out. After all, the percentage of the electorate that believes the country is on the right track has fallen to the mid-thirties. Plus, he is increasingly tainted by his association with political leaders who have behaved unethically. Though his party that is supposed to be fiscally conservative, he has bloated the government and persistently mismanaged the public finances. In short, his credibility is shot. Over the long term, the challenges he describes need to be addressed – and could be if only he would admit his approach has failed, stop blaming “liberals,” and just get out of the way.

I did mention I was talking about Jacques Chirac, didn’t I?

By Will Friedman in Foreign Affairs, Politics, Social Security | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack | Email this post

April 10, 2005

Newt's Strategy

Maybe he’s jealous of all the attention Tom Delay is getting, or maybe he wants to be remembered as something other than a stooge on Da Ali G Show. Whatever the reason, Newt Gingrich is baaack. He thinks Bush is doing a piss-poor job selling privatization of Social Security, so he provided some free advice by agency of the Washington Post:

Bush and the Hill need to start over with "a narrowly focused, very directed, very specific campaign" aimed at people under 40.

"I recommend they take a deep breath, step back, launch a new campaign in which the urgency is the fact that every day that you fail to pass it, every young person in America loses the interest for the rest of their lifetime on that day's savings," Gingrich said.

Karl Rove must not be returning his phone calls if Newt has to resort to on-the-record, off-the-reservation commentary. But is his unsolicited advice to fellow Republicans unsound?

The administration privatization strategy is divide and conquer: tell older people that Social Security will persist with no changes, and tell young people that it can’t last so it must be changed. The administration has gotten itself into a twist, however, because on one hand Bush has admitted that private accounts won’t solve Social Security’s long-term solvency problem, but on the other hand his political base requires that private accounts be the “solution.” Given this contradiction, you can understand why young people aren’t clamoring for private accounts.

What’s more, some of them have become convinced that the pension program is a downright sham. For them, private accounts look like a silly half-measure. They have heard that Social Security won’t be able to pay them and that the trust fund is full of worthless IOUs. At this point, they’re ready to do away with the whole damn thing.

Here’s an example. I got into a discussion with Travis Benning, a blogger who is a junior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who read “The Right to Remain Silent,” and dissed it. (When blogging, you have a chance to interact with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet.) After a little banter on his site, he kindly called me “a worthy blogger” but proceeded to explain that he would like to abolish the Robin Hoodish program once and for all.

Travis’s blog is not the only young voice calling for the abolition of Social Security. You can find similar sentiments on a multitude of blogs and college campuses. And though I first thought that the Santorum-serenading College Republicans had been absent the day the talking points were handed out, they were probably expressing what they really felt – “Social Security has got to go!”

I once felt this way, too. In elementary school, we talked about a “crisis” as young members of Future Problem Solvers of America (or, “geeks”). Later, when I was a teenager, Reagan was running huge deficits, and there was a sense that something had to give. For what I read in the newspaper, I concluded that Social Security wouldn’t be around when I retired. I was earning minimum wage bussing tables and Social Security was already taking a cut, which I would presumably never again touch. I was thus in the Ditch It camp.

But now, having seen the first “crisis” in my lifetime resolved relatively painlessly, I believe there are non-destructive solutions that will enable the program to stay useful and solvent, and to pay me back when I retire. That’s typical: the older you get, the more faith you have in our pension system. Retirees have always been pleasantly surprised to receive their Social Security checks. And once they start getting the checks they realize how important the system is, and then they want it to be around for their grandchildren. That’s why Newt suggests targeting youth rather than Grandma and Grandpa.

But since some youth are calling for the abolition of the whole program, divide and conquer may prove risky. Young voters don’t decide elections if they did, Kerry would be president. And Republican strategists know that admitting they want to abolish Social Security is a losing proposition.

So, boring as it is, the Gingrich tactic of focusing on the relative amount of interest that private accounts may one day generate may be the best message privatizers have left. Unfortunately for them, it’s complicated to explain, easy to refute, and vulnerable to the whims of the stock market. If that’s the best they’ve got left, it’s no wonder Mr. Rove doesn’t have time to return Newt’s phone calls.

By Will Friedman in Politics, Social Security | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack | Email this post

March 30, 2005

The Right to Remain Silent

As you have heard elsewhere, George Bush has been touring the country preaching the benefits of his Social Security privatization scheme to carefully pre-screened [audio link] audiences of already converted supporters. The idea is to generate positive spill-over coverage in local press, which will supplement the various fake news reports the administration has been developing and distributing.

This undeniably tenacious sell job must not be fooling enough of the people enough of the time, however, because the administration is trying new tactics. At a privatization rally with Bush on Monday, three attendees were forcibly ejected — just because they arrived in a friend’s car which bore an anti-war bumper sticker.

"They hadn't done anything wrong. They weren't dressed inappropriately, they didn't say anything inappropriate," [their lawyer Dan] Recht said. "They were kicked out of this venue and not allowed to hear what the president had to say based solely on this political bumper sticker.

I can’t wait to hear how White House Press Secretary Scott McClellen explains this one. But whatever he says can’t be more jarring than hearing about these expulsions on the same day that Bush declared,

Freedom is on the march. Freedom is the birthright and deep desire of every human soul, and spreading freedom's blessings is the calling of our time.

I guess he wasn’t thinking about freedom of speech.

The fictional character Winston Smith wrote, “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Conversely, if that freedom is denied it means that others are endangered, so it’s not a good sign if anyone willing to question the President’s fuzzy math on privatization is shut up.

Come to think of it, I can try to predict Mr. McClellan’s response at the next press briefing. “Some people may have forgotten that everything changed on September 11th,” he will say. “And you still have the right to remain silent!”

By Will Friedman in Politics, Social Security | Permalink | Comments (0) | Email this post

February 23, 2005

Hey Hey, Ho Ho!

On the Daily Show broadcast on Dec 19, 2004, John Stewart showed a video of President Bush saying,

We have a problem... Are we willing to confront the problem now or pass it on to future, uh, Congresses and future generations? I've made a declaration to the American people that now is the time to confront Social Security.

Stewart's response:

That's the problem, Social Security?  Because if we don't destroy it now, it might be there when we're older.

It turns out that the truth is stranger than a humorous TV news show.  Check out this video of Senator Rick Santorum being serenaded by chants of "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Social Security has got to go!" as he walks into a town hall meeting.  (For more on Santorum's plans, see his strategy document under "Worth Visiting.")

I thought those crazy shanties on the Diag during my Michigan days were wacky...but I never imagined what could happen when College Republicans let their hair down!

Update: Talking Points Memo has revealed that Dick Armey, "head of one of the main groups funded the PR blitz for President Bush's privatization plan says Social Security should be 'phased out'" rather than saved.

By Will Friedman in Politics, Social Security | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack | Email this post