A number of commentators have compared the looming battle over Social Security reform to the debate over President Clinton’s healthcare plan. As a veteran of that fight, I see some striking similarities, most of which don’t bode well for this president’s message.
It is a fundamental truism that it’s easier to defeat a proposal than pass it. When going for a yes vote, you first have to convince people that there is a real problem and that you have the right solution. The “no” side can argue either that the problem doesn’t exist or that the solution is flawed.
With the Clinton and Bush proposals, people generally acknowledge the problem. Back in 1993-94, two-thirds of Americans wanted “radical healthcare reform.” In 2005, similar numbers agree Social Security is in trouble. (A few years ago, we found in polling that more Americans under 35 believed in flying saucers than in getting a Social Security check.)
But the devil is in the details. Just as with the Clinton proposal, Social Security reform is vulnerable to a “right problem, wrong solution” attack. In polls released last week by CNN/USA Today/Gallup and by The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University, Americans agreed that Social Security is in trouble but were not willing to accept the changes proposed to fix it.
Reducing benefits or raising payroll taxes for most workers is a nonstarter. The only exception is for higher-income Americans. Depending on how you ask the question, from 60 to 80 percent of respondents would cut benefits or raise taxes for the wealthy — an idea not likely to be endorsed by this White House or Congress. Healthy majorities oppose the president’s private investment accounts, although the numbers improve slightly if they are called “personal accounts.”
So it is fair to say that President Bush has a difficult sales job on his hands. To his credit, Bush seems to have gotten the message of the Clinton healthcare battle and is doing a few things differently.
First, he’s not making the mistake of presenting a complicated, detailed plan to Congress. Bush is stating the problem and calling on Congress to solve it. His only error here may be his insistence on making private investment accounts part of the package. That is a big target for opponents to shoot at, particularly with the memory of a bad stock market still lingering.
Second, Bush is not sitting around waiting for a well-organized, well-financed campaign to sink his proposals. The Clinton White House refused to believe that a grassroots and advertising campaign could turn the country against its carefully crafted proposal. One industry with nothing to lose decided to roll the dice with Harry and Louise, and, 14 months later, two-thirds of voters opposed the Clinton plan. (In defense of the Clinton White House, no one had ever waged such a campaign before and the administration was blind-sided.)
Bush and his allies seem to have gotten that message. Business coalitions have launched multimillion-dollar grassroots lobbying campaigns to support Social Security reform and private accounts.
On the other side, AARP has joined forces with Rock the Vote, the Campaign for America’s Future, labor unions and MoveOn. They have all launched grassroots or advertising campaigns against Bush’s proposals.
History and current polling suggest the campaigns against the president’s proposals will most likely prevail. Pluralities of voters trust Democrats to fix Social Security rather than Bush and the Republicans. Most think private accounts are a bad idea. More think people are likely to lose money rather than increase their returns.
Just putting the president on the road and organizing true believers at the grass roots will not win this battle. The president’s allies must develop messages to convince voters that the risk of not changing the system is greater than the risk of relying on some future fix. They must convince voters that private accounts will improve their upside and not increase their downside risk.
Bush has a bully pulpit and can get on the evening news and front pages when he pounds it. But that alone is not enough. Voters have a political filter that discounts the credibility of those messages.
To win this fight, his allies must change the underlying assumptions of voters. You only do that with messages and messengers that strike a responsive chord.
That is exactly what brought down Clinton healthcare a decade ago. Whichever side does that in this fight will win on Social Security.
Goddard, working for the health-insurance industry, was the mind behind the “Harry and Louise” campaign that galvanized opinion against the Clinton healthcare plan in 1994. He is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.