Their argument is that Democrats need to stand for something. By only opposing change in Social Security they actually play to the perception that they are a reactive Party that defends entrenched special interests and the status quo. As a result, while the debate over policy swings the Democrats' way, the struggle between the Parties and their national image swings further the way of the Republicans -- they are doing something; the Democats are standing still.
"In the latest Democracy Corps poll, the public's esteem for Republicans, including the Republican Congress, moved even further above the Democrats, despite the crash of Bush's signature policy initiative and grave doubts about the wisdom of Iraq and Bush's economic policies. While gaining confidence from the assault on Bush's Social Security plan, Democrats should pause to think about why Republicans are not crashing and how that impacts the Social Security debate in the months ahead."
Dan Balz of the WaPost cites others who feel this way, including Harold Ickes: "'Democrats are winning the fight over private accounts,' Ickes said. 'But if the Democratic position is we can't have private accounts but also can't have an increase in the cap [on earnings subject to the payroll tax] or the retirement age, that may be a difficult position to sustain.' He added: 'I couldn't predict what form it [a compromise] might take, but I think the administration has a lot at stake on the Social Security issue. . . . They are a wily group and I think they are going to come up with something to claim victory.'"
All this goes to my larger point that the Democrats are failing to connect with voters that they have a coherent vision of what they want to do and are willing to pay a political price to step forward and lay that vision on the table. People don't trust them to lead because they don't appear willing to take the risks of leadership. But I think in thinking about this problem Democrats need to step outside of the box and resist allowing others to define the situation and the problem for them. Balz writes:
"In their analysis, Greenberg and Carville said Democrats have resisted saying there is a problem with Social Security, even though 63 percent of Americans in a recent National Public Radio poll said there was. 'To say there is no problem simply puts Democrats out of the conversation for the great majority of the country that want political leaders to secure this very important government retirement program,' they wrote. 'Voters are looking for reform, change and new ideas but Democrats seem stuck in concrete.'"
I am willing to grant that perception but I think in part it is because Democrats have resisted trying to redefine the problem. The larger issue is that Repoublicans and pundits have defined this situation, defined this crisis. There are 3 or 4 other policy crises that are far more urgent but the punditocracy has decided that this is the cause du jour. How possible is it to strike out against this current? I don't know frankly. But one idea would be that rather than phrasing the situation as -- 'there is no crisis,' Democrats try a new tact and argue that this is a question of priorities. What about Medicare? Who is going to secure that? What about the deficit? Who going to secure that? There are serious problems facing the country but Social Security, while it may be one of them, is hardly the most pressing domestic issue. I maintain that focusing on the general funds crisis, on the problems in health care allows Democrats to tack against the wind and strike a new course.
The problem inherent in the analysis that urges Democrats get prepared to have a policy is that it a) accepts the Republican and punditocracy definition of the problem -- sure 65% of the country buys it but why accept that figure? And b) it requires that Democrats get prepared to strike a deal with the Administration and Republicans in Congress. There is nothing in recent past to suggest that this deal will go as Democrats want, that they won't get stabbed in the back, or that they will get any credit for dealing on the issue. Look at prescription drugs, no child left behind and homeland security. How much credit have Democrats gotten for those initiatives? Why can't Democrats say that we won't bargain under the current circumstances over Social Security. Why can't Democrats hold out for a time (hopefully in the near future) when the numbers are more in their favor? If the Democrats really want to look like they are willing to take political risks to tackle major issues they could talk about the Bush tax cuts and how rolling them back would simply restore us to tax levels we experienced under Clinton, when the economy was roaring, it will go a long ways towards fixing the general funds crisis which is real and significant, it will help stabilize the dollar, and it will ease back on the pressures facing Social Security. They could also spend more time reminding people of all the rotten domestic policy eggs that have been laid by this administration and how serious is the looming budget crisis. Greenspan (that Party hack - thank you Harry Reid) himself opened the door when he said that the budget problems are serious and urgent. Let's take him at his word.