Pigskin, Politics, and The President
The Bush approach to Social Security reform is tactically quite inspired.


Kevin A. Hassett

As I watched President Bush speak about Social Security reform on Thursday night, I could not help but think of Logan Mankins.

I am one of those economists who obsesses over the NFL draft. The draft is especially interesting to economists because there is so much data on players, making statistical evaluation possible. Are faster runners better NFL running backs? We have their 40-yard dash times, and can see. The selection process then becomes a natural experiment where the picks can be weighed against the predictions of economic models. Often, the picks of the executives are found to be less than rational. (Click here for a recent example of an economic analysis of the NFL draft.)

The king of NFL draft data is a fellow named Mel Kiper. For years, he has been generating blue books filled with data and analysis for every player he thinks has a chance of being selected. He also predicts the round that each significant player will be selected in. This year, for example, he pegged the number-one pick overall, Alex Smith, the quarterback from Utah, as a likely early first rounder.

The draft this year created its usual share of surprises. But one of the biggest was the decision by the New England Patriots to draft an offensive lineman, Logan Mankins, in the first round. This pick looked very much like a reach. Mankins had mediocre measurables, and was thought to be a third-rounder by Kiper. The most entertaining five minutes of every draft is that period just following a strange pick. Kiper and his announcer colleagues at ESPN riff on the “what were they thinking” motif. In this case, I was expecting them to remind viewers that the Patriots probably could have selected Mankins at the end of the second or even third round. The pick was questionable, to say the least.

But something strange happened after the Patriots made the pick. All of the announcers looked quietly at each other and seemed unwilling to speak. No one was willing to criticize the Patriots brain trust. They have won, after all, three of the last four Super Bowls. You could see Kiper thinking, “I must have misclassified Mankins if the Patriots picked him so high.”

I started to feel that way Thursday night about the Bush approach to Social Security reform. Like the Patriots, President Bush has racked up an impressive set of victories and has repeatedly surprised the experts. Might he be doing so again? After Thursday night, I am not willing to say he is not.

The Social Security policy debate has been strange, to say the least. President Bush has been aggressively pushing reform, but in an odd way. While he has given countless speeches on the subject, he has not proposed a plan, and Congress appears to be floundering without one. It is one of the first times in policy history that I can remember when a president has been willing to say we must have a reform, but at the same time has been unwilling to say exactly what this reform might be.

Yesterday’s news conference was supposed to be the moment when Bush finally announced an outline to guide Congress. The press was filled with stories to that effect yesterday afternoon. But his introductory chat did no such thing. He added one little tidbit of news: He wants the reform to achieve fiscal balance by “means testing” benefits for high-income individuals. But this observation is hardly a plan at all.

So what is the president up to? As he discussed Social Security, the first thing he did was make it clear that a big fiscal problem is brewing. We ignore it at our peril. The longer we wait to fix the problem, the worse the problem becomes. He then stated clearly his objectives, but also appeared very flexible with regard to alternative approaches. The problem is too serious to draw lines in the sand, he seemed to be saying; we all need to put aside our partisan differences and fix Social Security before it is too late. He was being reasonable.

This approach is tactically quite inspired. Since Social Security is in big trouble, it is not hard to convince folks that some kind of fix is in order. Once voters are convinced, then a politician has put a tremendous amount of pressure on his opponents. If the president is conciliatory and reasonable, then perhaps the policymakers in Washington are obstructionists if nothing happens. The president wants to work with Democrats and get something done. He has his principles, but he wants to hear theirs.

So the Democrats have two choices. They can oppose any compromise, in which case they may pay a politically price because they are the ones who are unwilling to be flexible. Or they can compromise and fix Social Security. If the president put forward a plan, the Democrats could claim that the fix did not occur because of the weakness of the plan. Without a plan, they see pressure to go to the table and work one out with their Republican colleagues. If they do not, perhaps there will be many more Tom Daschles in the next election, and then Social Security can be reformed.

By managing the politics in this way, President Bush has reduced the political risk associated with Social Security reform, and probably maximized the chance that something positive can happen. When Logan Mankins retires into the Hall of Fame, he will probably have a sound Social Security system to rely upon.

Kevin A. Hassett is director of economic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.