American politics has been so corrupted by concepts such as "positioning" and "message discipline" that citizens don't get credit for their ability to decide issues on the merits. But when the public knows and cares a great deal about what's at stake, it is quite discerning about what's true and what's not.
That's why President Bush's troubles on Social Security cannot be explained by some alleged failure of the White House's usually impeccable communications operation. Conventional explanations fail because this is a battle over principle in which the facts matter.
So far the president has made at least four mistakes. He assumed he could convince the country that Social Security faces a crisis requiring urgent action. He thought he could accentuate the positive -- those "personal accounts" really do sound great -- without laying out what they would cost. He counted on getting good-government points by "facing up" to Social Security's long-term problems without proposing any hard steps to fix them. And he figured that some Democrats would fall his way simply because that's what has always happened before.
The "crisis" claim didn't fly because it wasn't true. The president himself has gotten more careful in how he speaks about the long-term shortfall, because the moment he notes that the Social Security trust fund does not run dry until somewhere between 2042 and 2052, the notion of a crisis goes up in smoke.
As for personal accounts, their more forthright advocates acknowledge that paying for them will require either substantial tax increases or borrowing on the order of $2 trillion. Bush has finessed this nasty detail, hoping that such brave Republican legislators as Sens. Lindsey Graham and Chuck Hagel would take the hit for delivering the bad news. The president could later claim success for the enactment of a "package" brought about through a secular version of immaculate conception. But if the president really believes in these accounts, why won't he step up and say how he'd pay for them?
The same critique applies to Bush's hope that he would get credit for courage in talking about Social Security's problems. Here again Bush lets members of Congress float proposals for benefit cuts and tax increases without formally embracing any as his own. Polls show Bush's credibility on Social Security dropping because citizens know there must be some pain in his proposal somewhere, and they want him to be candid about it.
And then there are those pesky Democrats. Rep. David Obey says his party colleagues can't be expected to put forward a full alternative to Bush's ideas until a Bush plan actually exists. "Given that he's the person who says that this debate needs to start now and needs to start with such a radical approach, he's got an obligation to lay his specific plan on the table," Obey says. "What he's put on the table is not a plan, it's a concept -- and Congress doesn't enact concepts."
Obey has credibility on this question because he introduced a Social Security fix of his own in the previous Congress. Based roughly on ideas put forward by Robert Ball, a former Social Security commissioner, Obey's plan would guarantee solvency through a mix of tax increases and modest benefit cuts. Obey said he put the "fine tuning" concepts forward to show that "you don't have to destroy Social Security in order to save it."
Bush faces unexpectedly severe Democratic fire because Social Security is one issue where the Democrats' political interests and their political faith coincide.
"Believe it or not," Obey says, "Democrats do have core values, and those values are brought up front by issues such as Social Security and Medicare." Both are cases in which government has "substituted the social gospel for social Darwinism." He adds: "We really do believe it would be immoral to blow up the one program that sends the signal that we are all in this together." Those cynical about Democratic motives make a tactical blunder if they ignore the practical impact of this intense sense of mission. Liberals made the same mistake in underestimating the passion of conservative supply-siders.
Where does this leave a president? Dropping his call for private accounts carved out of Social Security would allow him to win bipartisan approval for moderate fixes to make the retirement system solvent for decades. Alternatively, he could put forward a serious and detailed plan for private accounts and invite an honest and instructive philosophical face-off with the Democrats on the future of social insurance. The lesson of the first round of the Social Security debate is that the public won't bet on Bush's ideas until he reveals the cards he's holding back.