Politics & Policy

The Cost of Failure

On Social Security, it may turn out to be surprisingly low.

The conventional wisdom since at least December has been that President Bush would fail to get Social Security reform through Congress. On this occasion, the conventional wisdom was right. Even the most die-hard advocates of reform know that it’s extremely unlikely that Congress will enact anything.

For a president to fail in his signature domestic initiative of his second term is no small thing. Yet the political impact of that failure may not be substantial. Democrats have hoped that they could make Republicans pay for broaching the issue, and Republicans that Democrats would pay for obstruction. But it’s not clear that either party is going to pay.

Democrats say that the president’s plan failed because of its unpopularity. But the truth is that it is neither so popular that Democrats face any pressure to vote for it nor so unpopular that it is likely to cost Republicans seats. It was always likely that it would poll within this wide band. If its floor of support had been low, the president would not have proposed it. But it was never plausible that it would poll so well that Democrats would have a good political reason to break with their party. The only reason for a Democrat to have broken ranks would have been because he agreed so strongly with the president in principle that he was willing to face down his own party bosses.

Republicans have not been able to mobilize younger voters, some of whom are so skeptical about Social Security’s future that they are not interested in plans to fix it. But Democrats are unlikely to succeed in scaring seniors about Social Security in November 2006 the way they did in elections in the 1980s. The element of the Bush plan that was most potentially dangerous for Republicans was the reduction in future benefits. The fact that Republicans are never going to vote on it minimizes their exposure. Nobody is panicking over the fizzling out of the issue.

Many Democrats have predicted that Social Security would be for Bush what health-care reform was for President Clinton: the issue that broke his majority. But the timing is very different. Clinton’s health plan crashed and burned in the months just prior to the midterm elections. Bush’s Social Security plan is dying with more than a year to go before elections.

There’s another important difference between the two experiences. The failure of the Clintons’ health-care plan took comprehensive health-care reform off the table in Washington for more than a decade. Republicans do not seem nearly so skittish about Social Security reform. If they pick up a few more Senate seats, or Democratic unity declines–perhaps because Democrats see that opposition yielded fewer dividends for them than they had hoped–there is no reason they cannot take up the issue again.

This episode, frustrating as it has been for many conservatives, may end up having been historically necessary for the eventual passage of Social Security reform. The cause has proceeded in incremental steps. It began within the Republican party’s right, with the primary candidacies of Pete du Pont (in 1988) and Steve Forbes (in 1996). It was embraced for the first time by a major party’s presidential nominee in 2000. In 2002, congressional candidates advocating it weathered the first real storm it provoked. In 2004, a president managed to get reelected after having established a commission to promote the idea and promised to go further in his next term. Each time, the idea has moved a step closer to enactment because the people pushing it forward have not seen their political careers ended. In 2005, the idea has gone further than ever before. If going this far turns out not to be a career-ender, either, then future Congresses may actually vote on a bill–or pass one.

The main thing the president has lost, meanwhile, is time. He’ll never have the first few months of his second term again.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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