Social Security Follies
Congressional Republicans have begun talking with top White House aides about an exit strategy -- not from Iraq, but from the winless quagmire of President Bush's campaign to privatize Social Security. Mr. Bush has responded to this new political reality by, first, insisting that the American people do not yet understand the virtues of privatization, and second, blaming the failure of his deservedly unpopular plan on Congressional Democrats.
After listening to Mr. Bush talk of little else during his second term, the American people understand quite well what he is proposing for Social Security, and by wide margins reject it. In fact, the polls show that the more they learn about privatization, the less they like it. And with good reason. The very real risks of privatization -- in terms of retirement security and the enormous budgetary cost to the country -- far outweigh the potential rewards.
So when Congressional Republican leaders tell the president that Social Security private accounts are a nonstarter, they are conveying the informed views of their constituents.
Mr. Bush has reacted by railing against Democrats for obstruction -- as if Democrats are duty-bound to breathe life into his agenda and, even sillier, as if opposing a plan that the people do not want is an illegitimate tactic for an opposition party.
Rather than accept defeat and consider alternatives, Mr. Bush is becoming even more feckless as public and political opposition mounts. On Tuesday, in a lame ploy to draw the Democrats to the table, he gave tepid approval to a proposal by Robert Bennett, the stalwart conservative senator from Utah, to restore the system's solvency in a way that would not include private accounts -- all the while saying that he was not prepared to give up private accounts.
For contrast, I give you an editorial written just four and a half years later:
Editorial Don't Give Up Now
It would be a terrible mistake for Democrats to abandon comprehensive health care reform just because voters in the Massachusetts Senate race last week decided that they liked the Republican, Scott Brown, more than the Democrat, Martha Coakley.
There is no question that without a filibuster-proof majority it will be a lot harder to pass a bill. But it should not be impossible if Congressional Democrats and the White House show courage and creativity. Health care reform is too important to throw away, and it is not too late to persuade voters that it is in their interest.
Congress is achingly close to passing legislation that would cover most uninsured Americans and provide much more security for all Americans -- guaranteeing that if they lose their jobs they will be able to buy affordable policies and can't be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
If the Democrats quit now, so close to the goal line, the opportunity for large-scale reform could be lost for years. Meanwhile, the number of uninsured, currently more than 46 million, will keep going up and the cost of health care will continue to soar.
Many panicky Democrats see Mr. Brown's win as proof that angry voters will punish them in November if they press ahead with reform. We believe that is a misreading of what happened and what's possible.
Ms. Coakley ran an inept campaign. And the White House hasn't done enough to address voters' profound and legitimate fears about losing their jobs and their homes. But President Obama and Congressional Democrats have also clearly failed to explain why reform will make Americans' lives more secure -- not less.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that Massachusetts, which adopted its own very similar health care reform in 2006, is a compelling example of both the benefits and popularity of the effort.
A poll taken in Massachusetts after the election by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that a surprising 68 percent of those who had voted said that they supported their own state's plan, including slightly more than half of those who had voted for Mr. Brown.
Mr. Brown, who promised to block reform in Washington, voted for his state's program in 2006 and did not campaign against it this year. Instead, he argued that since Massachusetts' citizens already have coverage, why should they help pay to expand coverage elsewhere.
That cynical I've-got-mine argument doesn't make a lot of sense -- even in Massachusetts. The Senate bill would funnel additional money into the Massachusetts program and federal efforts to rein in costs should ultimately benefit all of the states.
Democrats should take another look at what really happened in Massachusetts and then summon the nerve to enact comprehensive reform. They must make clear to voters that they have little to fear. Even the mandate requiring everyone to buy insurance doesn't kick in until 2014. And they must make clear that reform offers immediate gains, especially for middle-class Americans.
Once the bill becomes law, many dependent children could remain on their parents' policies until age 26. Insurers would no longer be able to set lifetime caps on the amount they will pay for health care. Children could not be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. The gap in drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries, known as the doughnut hole, would begin to close. And small businesses would immediately get tax credits to cover their employees.
Recent polls show that the public is divided, with more opposing the bills than favoring them. The negatives have been driven up by critics' distortions about a supposed government takeover of medicine and the tawdry deal-making necessary to win 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
Still, a recent national poll by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that large shares of people became more supportive when told about such provisions as tax credits for small businesses that offer coverage, exchanges where people could choose among competing policies, and rules against denying coverage.
We are hearing a lot of talk in Washington, including from President Obama, about possibly paring down the current bills -- to cover many fewer of the uninsured and focus instead on reeling in the worst abuses of the insurance industry and reining in health care costs. That could be difficult technically; many of the parts are not easy to disentangle without undermining their effectiveness. And the politics on Capitol Hill -- where the Republicans are determined to oppose pretty much anything President Obama endorses -- are unlikely to get easier.
The most promising path forward would be for House Democrats to pass the Senate bill as is and send it to the president for his signature. That would allow the administration and Congress to pivot immediately to job creation and other economic issues. The Senate bill is not perfect, but it would expand coverage to 94 percent of all citizens and legal residents by 2019, reduce the deficit for decades to come, and create pilot programs to move the medical system toward better care at lower costs.
I've no doubt you could find equal and opposite editorials if you hunted through back issues of the Wall Street Journal.
It may not make much difference, from a libertarian's point of view, when the presidency or control of congress changes hands. But it does provide a hilarious spectacle.
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