Bill Clinton is getting a lot of attention this week for his claim that Dems must not conclude from their victory in NY-26 that they don’t need a plan of their own on Medicare. “I hope Democrats don’t use this as an excuse to do nothing,” Clinton said.
So it’s worth recalling that during the big fight over Social Security in 2005, Clinton said exactly the same thing. And politically, he was wrong.
“I think the Democrats should say what they are for on Social Security,” Clinton said in May of 2005. “I think that the Democrats should have a plan and they should talk to the president and the congressional Republicans about it.”
Nancy Pelosi, by contrast, insisted at the time that offering a Dem plan would confuse the public by onvincing people there was something that needed fixing. Instead, Pelosi took to saying: “We have a plan. It’s called Social Security.”
Pelosi turned out to be right — the hard line in defense of Social Security Dems maintained was key to the defeat Bush’s privatization scheme.
Now Clinton is giving similar advice about Medicare — Dems need a plan. And Pelosi is insisting Dems should say: “We have a plan. It’s called Medicare.”
So who’s right this time?
In some key ways, the political context is very different. In 2005, Dems were the opposition; now they control the White House and Senate. Unlike in 2005, a Democratic president and Congress have spent two years passing hugely ambitious and expensive proposals, and now see a need to signal fiscal seriousness and restraint to win back independents. Dems agree with Republicans that something must be done to rein in exploding costs — they agree that doing nothing is not an option this time — and judging by what’s happening in the Biden-led talks, they will acquiesce to cuts of some kind, perhaps significant ones.
But the lesson of 2005 still stands: Whatever they do agree to in the end, the more they can be seen as the defenders of Medicare in roughly its current form, the better off politically they’ll be.