The Dems do have a Social Security plan -- this is it

It’s quite a commentary on how accustomed Washington is to the Democrats as a party of pitiful weaklings and pathetic pushovers that Republicans and so many of the city’s A-list pundits have taken up the cry that the Dems are going to get an electoral whuppin’ for not putting forward their own “plan” on Social Security.

It’s quite a commentary on how accustomed Washington is to the Democrats as a party of pitiful weaklings and pathetic pushovers that Republicans and so many of the city’s A-list pundits have taken up the cry that the Dems are going to get an electoral whuppin’ for not putting forward their own “plan” on Social Security.

To review how silly an argument that is, let me divide it up under three headings: “bogus premise,” “bogus politics” and “bogus substance.”

First, the bogus premise: The president has a plan; the Democrats don’t.

Where is President Bush’s plan, exactly? Everybody is acting on the assumption that Bush has put forward a plan while the Democrats haven’t. But that’s simply false on its face. Indeed, just yesterday the president said, “I have not laid out a plan yet.”

The president has put forward some general principles outlining his support for privatization. Besides a decision in favor of four of the 12 percentage points of payroll taxes being available for diversion into private accounts, he has specified no details.

In other words, the president hasn’t put a plan on the table at all, even though he’s supposed to be the one leading this debate. If we say that Bush has put a plan on the table, by that standard, the Democrats have one, too, since they’ve made clear they favor of a 1983-style reform with a mix of modest tax increases and modest benefit cuts.

But that’s not the only or even the most significant level on which this premise is simply false.

As the president now concedes, private accounts do nothing to improve solvency. In fact, they greatly accelerate the onset of Social Security’s budget difficulties.

That is only one more way of stating what should be obvious: What we’re having right now isn’t a debate about “saving” Social Security or ensuring its long-term solvency. What we’re having right now is a debate about whether to keep Social Security or phase it out and replace it with a system of 401(k)-style private accounts. (Privatizers and preservers both know that the current plan is just stage one in an effort to move toward a system completely made up of private accounts.)

In the debate over whether to keep or phase out Social Security, Democrats most certainly have a position — one that is clear, united and emphatic. That is, maintain Social Security as a defined-benefit social insurance program.

If you say the Democrats don’t have a position or a plan, it’s either because you’re not paying attention to the details or you’re not even clear about what is being debated.

Second, the bogus politics: The Democrats will be punished by voters for not putting forward their own plan.

I understand why Republicans say this. They’re playing a losing hand, and they’re looking for a way out. But anybody who’s been in politics longer than a week knows that putting forward a detailed plan — something that the president refuses to do — will distract attention from the drubbing the Republicans are currently getting for wanting to phase out Social Security.

Politically, that’s stupid.

Will the Democrats be punished for not putting forward a “plan”? You really have to be uncommonly foolish to fall for this one. The president has the bully pulpit. He has solid majorities in both houses of Congress. He’s put all his clout on the line. And with all that, the public is overwhelmingly opposed to his plan and seems to be hardening in its opposition. The idea that voters will punish Democrats for opposing a plan that they themselves overwhelmingly oppose is one that simply collapses under the weight of its own ridiculousness.

Third, the bogus substance: Whatever the politics, putting forward a detailed plan is the right thing to do.

Let’s say everything I’ve said above turns out to be wrong. Set aside all the politics. On the substance, what should the Dems be doing?

This town’s A-list barkers are now putting up a hue and cry that Dems need to show what they stand for rather than simply opposing the president. Well, Democrats are making clear that they are unanimously in favor of keeping Social Security. If that’s really what they believe, what they should do is do everything in their power to prevent Bush from dismantling it.

Putting forward a plan that they can do nothing to pass (since they’re completely shut out of power) would at a minimum be a distraction from the debate.

More likely, they would provide the president with some opportunity to change the present political dynamic and perhaps improve his chances for phasing out Social Security.

So if the question is really how best to prevent Bush from phasing out Social Security, there’s really little question as to what the Democrats should do.

Eventually, voters see through spin. The best way for Democrats to show voters that they stand for something is actually to stand for something. Any pol worth his salt can see that the best way to prevent President Bush from dismantling Social Security in the 109th Congress is to keep doing just what they’re doing right now.

If the Dems believe in Social Security and their true priority is to preserve it, the conversation should really end right there.

Marshall is editor of talkingpointsmemo.com. His column appears in The Hill each week. E-mail: jmarshall@thehill.com