More Partisan Than Thou

Kevin Drum reads Ron Brownstein's column in which he compares Social Security reform to the current debate and thinks this is a bad comparison:

It's basically fine, though, except for this one paragraph that's become pundit conventional wisdom lately:

It is revealing that Obama is facing nearly unanimous Republican opposition on health care just four years after President Bush couldn't persuade a single congressional Democrat to back his comparably ambitious Social Security restructuring.

I understand why people write stuff like this, and the parallels are strong enough to make it defensible.  But is it really true?

Maybe I'm remembering things through partisan-colored glasses, but my recollection is that there are some pretty significant differences here.  First, George Bush never sought out any compromise at all.  He insisted on a pure, budget-busting carve-out privatization scheme and never gave Democrats so much as a chance to make a deal.  But what if he'd made it clear that he was open to compromise?  Say, part carve-out, part add-on, and with a modest collection of benefit cuts and tax increases to go along with it?  I suspect a lot of Dems would have been open to something like that, but Bush never gave them a chance.

Second, it wasn't just Democratic opposition that killed Social Security privatization.  Thanks to Bush's intransigence, his plan became so radioactive that even a lot of Republicans didn't support it.  By the time Congress returned from its summer recess, it was obviously DOA and no bill was even introduced.

There are obvious superficial similarities between Social Security in 2005 and healthcare reform in 2009.  But in the former, Bush outlined a purely conservative proposal and never gave an inch on it.  In the latter, Obama has outlined a generally liberal proposal but allowed some give and take with Republicans. 

I don't understand.  What Kevin is outlining as the "moderate" option that Bush refused to offer seems to me to be almost exactly what Bush was proposing:

Who could open an investment account? The accounts are voluntary. But participation would be phased in over three years according to age. In the first year -- 2009 -- workers born from 1950 to 1965 could open accounts. In the second year, workers born from 1950 to 1978 could open accounts. In the third year, anyone born after 1950 could opt for an account.

How much payroll tax would be diverted to individual investment accounts? President Bush indicated that eventually, workers would be permitted to invest up to a third of the 12.4 percent payroll tax that they and their employers pay on their wages. (Workers pay 6.2 percent and their employers pay the other 6.2 percent.)

Annual contributions would be capped at $1,000 in 2009 and thereafter rise slightly more than $100 per year.

. . .

What other options would the president consider to make Social Security solvent? President Bush again ruled out increasing the payroll tax -- which is 12.4 percent of one's wages up to a certain cap ($90,000 this year). But in his remarks Wednesday he said, "fixing Social Security permanently will require an open, candid review of the options. ... I will work with members of Congress to find the most effective combination of reforms."

Among those he cited as "on the table" were:

  • limiting benefits for wealthy retirees;
  • indexing benefits to prices rather than wages;
  • increasing the retirement age; and
  • discouraging taking Social Security benefits early.

I also believe that it always commanded majority support among Republican voters; Congress caved when too few Democrats and independents were willing to go along.  Nor was this any more radical than a massive new health care benefit you plan to "pay for" mostly with fictional spending cuts.  Partial private accounts were instituted in Sweden fer goshsakes.  Over the long run, a portfolio of stocks transitioned to a portfolio of bonds is still a much better bet than Social Security benefits, and of course, 2/3 of the system would still have been the traditional Social Security.

Democrats were against it because a) this would make it harder to use the system as a progressive transfer and b) scaring the bejeesus out of senior citizens is an excellent, excellent way to take a political scalp.  In 2005, you heard exactly the same cry from Republicans that Democrats are raising now:  "What's your plan, bozo?"  Democrats steadfastly refused to put any serious alternative forward until private accounts were taken off the table.  Kevin's belief that Democrats would have been willing to compromise if Republicans hadn't been so damn partisan just isn't true.  They insisted that Republicans give up the one thing they wanted in order to even start talking about reform.  That's not the act of a party that is willing to make a deal.