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Napoleon and George

Saturday, I was reading about Napoleon Bonaparte and thinking about George Bush. By 1812, Napoleon had become the undisputed master of continental Europe. Then, in what was initially hailed as another of his “bold strokes,” he invaded Russia. His Grand Army of more than half a million men began its march toward “even greater glory.” The Russians refused to hold ground or fight pitched battles. They continually harassed the French troops but denied Napoleon the fixed engagement on which his strategy depended.

Saturday, I was reading about Napoleon Bonaparte and thinking about George Bush.             

By 1812, Napoleon had become the undisputed master of continental Europe. Then, in what was initially hailed as another of his “bold strokes,” he invaded Russia. His Grand Army of more than half a million men began its march toward “even greater glory.” The Russians refused to hold ground or fight pitched battles. They continually harassed the French troops but denied Napoleon the fixed engagement on which his strategy depended.

The Russians kept retreating, even evacuating Moscow and setting it ablaze just as the emperor marched in. Having captured the Russian capital, Napoleon waited, expecting a plan for surrender from the Russians. The surrender never came, but the fearsome winter did, and the once Grand Army began the devastating march back to Poland. By the time it returned, more than 95 percent had been lost, the myth of Napoleonic invincibility had crumbled, former allies were emboldened to revolt and, within a year and a half, the once-feared emperor was imprisoned on a small island.

I don’t foresee George Bush in exile, but, short of that, the parallels are striking.

When the president first announced his Social Security plan, commentators fawned on him for taking on the tough battles but always finding a way to win. When he relaunched the plan at his press conference last week, the first reaction was to categorize his effort to cut Social Security for 70 percent of Americans as the kind of “bold stroke” that had served him so well in the past.

But as Napoleon learned, a very thin line separates the bold stroke from the really dumb idea. Both leaders crossed that line.

Bush ignited a battle for public opinion on Social Security. That battle is now over, and the president has lost. The president made Social Security the domestic centerpiece of his State of the Union. Having failed to win converts there, he increased his commitment, announcing he would spend 60 days crisscrossing the country to build public support for his plan.

When he began, voters supported the underlying concept of private investment by narrow majorities. They would not, however, countenance the consequences: cuts in benefits or an increased deficit. But linking the critique to the plan was not so simple. How privatization cut benefits was not so easy to explain.

Yet while the president started the debate, Democrats and pro-Social Security groups won it. The more voters learned about the plan, the less they liked it. What began as support from a narrow majority is now opposition from a larger majority.

Gallup found 61 percent saying the president’s plan was a bad idea, while ABC found 55 percent opposed. CBS reported 70 percent were uneasy with Bush’s approach.

In his press conference, the president added one element to his plan that was even more unpopular: cutting Social Security for 70 percent of Americans.

Americans are unalterably opposed to cutting benefits. The ABC/Washington Post poll found only 20 percent supported cutting benefits for future retirees, with 75 percent opposed. In the Associated Press/Ipsos poll, 87 percent were opposed, while just 11 percent favored the president’s new proposal.

Now Bush and the Republicans are unambiguously advocating cuts in Social Security, while Democrats are fighting to protect middle-class access to the benefits they have earned. That debate should warm the heart of any Democrat — even in a harsh Russian winter.

Like Napoleon in Moscow, Bush is now waiting. He wants Democrats to sue for peace, to offer a plan for surrender in the form of a compromise. The czar didn’t make that mistake, and neither should we.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.