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A Party Without Principles

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By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, October 2, 2006

After years of single-party government, the prospect of a Democratic majority in the House ought to feel refreshing. But even with Republicans collapsing in a pile of sexual sleaze, I just can't get excited. Most Democrats in Congress seem bereft of ideas or the courage to stand up for them. They clearly want power, but they have no principles to guide their use of it.

On Friday, Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, correctly denounced a border-fence bill as a concession "to the radical anti-immigrant right wing" of the Republican Party. It's absurd to fence off 700 miles of the border and leave the other 1,300 miles open; besides, the government lacks the manpower to prevent migrants from defeating the fence with tunnels or ladders. But if blowing billions on this symbolism is a sop to right-wing nuts, why did 26 Senate Democrats vote for the bill while only 17 opposed it?

The day before the immigration vote, the majority of Senate Democrats summoned up the courage to oppose the Bush assault on the nation's traditions of justice. Of course they were right; you don't win a war of ideas by abandoning your most appealing ones. But if the Democrats had made common cause with the bill's Republican opponents, they could have filibustered the president's bill. Why vote against something and simultaneously allow it through? On an issue as basic as access to justice, can't Democrats stand on principle?

These battles dominated last week's headlines, but the Democrats' under-the-radar behavior was even more depressing. A conservative group circulated a petition calling for bipartisan talks on Social Security, with all potential solutions to be part of the discussion. Rather than embracing this eminently sane idea, top Democrats in Congress loudly slammed the door on it.

There's a long tradition of demagoguery on entitlement reform, but refusing even to discuss the challenge plumbs new depths of cynicism. A decade ago, Democratic centrists such as Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska argued that runaway entitlement spending would rob the rest of the budget, draining money from social programs that liberals are supposed to care about. Today, a pragmatic Republican such as Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah can propose a progressive fix to Social Security that does not involve personal accounts. But Democrats won't come forward to support him.

In rejecting Social Security discussions last week, the Democrats painted the conservatives' petition as a Trojan horse designed to get personal accounts back onto the table. Even if that were true, since when was all mention of personal accounts taboo for Democrats? A decade ago, a majority of the appointees to Bill Clinton's Social Security commission came out in favor of personal accounts. Even the dissenting minority was open to the idea of investing Social Security funds in the stock market.

If today's Democratic leaders were even a little bit awake, they would realize that the case for Social Security reform has grown stronger since the Clinton era. It's not just that the budget outlook has deteriorated or that the squandering of a decade renders a solvency fix more urgent. A new body of research shows how the lack of reform threatens core Democratic constituencies.

Social Security benefits were designed in the 1930s to protect traditional couples. But married couples make up a declining fraction of the adult population, particularly among minorities. Since 1970 the married share of the adult population has dropped by 10 percentage points for whites, 14 percentage points for Hispanics and an astonishing 22 percentage points for African Americans. Because Social Security benefits were not designed to protect singles, these changes in family structure are driving up poverty rates among the old. In the early 1990s, 2.4 percent of married retirees lived below the poverty line, according to the Urban Institute. But fully 21.2 percent of divorced retirees were poor, and the rate among never-marrieds was 16.2 percent.

If Democrats cared about poor women and minorities, they would be clamoring to reform Social Security. But instead they get a childish gratification out of stamping their feet and refusing to discuss the subject. They can't muster the courage to block the suspension of habeas corpus. But when it comes to blocking entitlement reform, the Democrats ride out to battle.

I'm not saying that Republicans are at all better, and of course elections breed some policy timidity. But the infuriating thing about the Democrats is that, just a decade ago, they knew how to empathize with voters' economic insecurities without collapsing into irresponsibility; they combined attractively progressive social policies with sensible pro-market fiscal responsibility. Now many in the party have lost interest in this necessary balance. If the Democrats win a measure of power next month, it's hard to see what they will do with it.

smallaby@washpost.com


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