Where Are the Democrats?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

THE DEMOCRATS are positively giddy over their success in foiling President Bush's Social Security plan. As a political matter, perhaps they have reason to cheer: Polls show Americans dubious about his proposed changes, and the president appears suddenly open to solutions that do not include his signature personal accounts. Yesterday he blessed a plan by Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) to introduce a Social Security bill that tackles solvency and does not offer personal accounts. (He'll do that in a separate measure.) But after the confetti settles, Democrats need to ask themselves: Now what? Having beaten back private accounts, as it appears they have, is it enough to keep sticking their fingers in their ears while saying "no"?

Certainly Republicans, with their reckless tax cuts and blithe dismissal of deficits, cannot claim the high ground of responsibility. But Democrats have yet to lay any claim to it either, given their resolute negativity on Social Security reform. The only Democratic proposal on the table, from Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, is a lopsided measure that would address Social Security solvency solely by raising taxes. Responsible proposals from Democratic economists that would blend benefit cuts and tax increases have gotten nowhere with Democratic lawmakers.

Mr. Bush, by contrast, has deviated from no-new-taxes orthodoxy to the extent of signaling a willingness to increase the payroll tax ceiling. And he took the political risk -- a risk Democrats gleefully exploited -- of endorsing a progressive indexing proposal with benefit cuts. That's a route that, in a less partisan climate, many Democrats would have endorsed, at least in part, because it protects the poor. It's also the route Mr. Bennett wants to go, along with indexing benefits to growing life expectancy, but the flaw in his plan is the mirror image of the problem with the Wexler proposal: He wants to solve the problem entirely by cutting benefits.

No doubt Democrats' political instincts will be against engaging at this point: Why bail out Mr. Bush now, the strategists will argue, and let him claim that he led the way to putting Social Security on the path to solvency? Why endorse spinach when it's so much more fun -- and politically useful -- to point out the spinach in the other side's plan? To a certain extent, Mr. Bush is reaping what he's sowed here: Having given Democrats no credit when they cooperated with him -- indeed, having campaigned against them -- he's not entitled to much sympathy when he now complains of their obstructionism.

But there is also the little matter of what's right for the country. Failing to act now will make the problem harder to fix down the road; cuts or tax increases will have to be steeper the longer the problem goes unaddressed. Yes, Medicare is a bigger, thornier problem, but that's a reason to get Social Security done, not to ignore the issue and let it fester.

Democratic lawmakers keep insisting that they take the Social Security problem seriously and want to deal with it. This seems a good time to start.

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