Monday, May 02, 2005

Bush and the Third Rail

The cat's finally out of the bag.

Having failed to attract much interest in his plan for privatizing Social Security and killing it off more or less directly, President Bush, in a rare, but typically scripted press conference at the White House last week, declared his intention to convert the 70-year-old retirement security program into a welfare program, pure and simple.

Bush's latest scheme would see retirement checks slashed for those earning as little as $36,000 a year (by 13 percent according to one estimate).

Worse yet--and this is clearly the whole idea--once the program is turned into a welfare scheme, in which the middle and upper middle classes have no real stake, political support for the program will dry up, benefits for the poor will be slashed, and the program will eventually die or be killed off.

This is a defining moment for Democrats and for progressives.

Compromise at this point with Bush and with the Republicans in Congress would mean the beginning of the end for Social Security.

Congressional Democrats, who for years have warned that Republicans are out to ruin Social Security, now have it direct from the president's own mouth. If they cannot stand firm against the threat now that it's been clearly stated, they deserve to go the way of the Whigs.

As for progressives both inside and outside the Democratic Party, this is a moment to push hard for preservation of the most enduring legacy of the New Deal, a program which is probably more popular across class and region than any other.

The truth is, progressives have been handed a golden opportunity. Bush'/s espousal of an income-staggered retirement system opens the door for them to promote a genuinely progressive alternative--one which would not threaten the middle class or undermine broad political support for the basic program. That alternative is to call for an end to the cap on income subject to Social Security taxation (currently any income above $90,000 per individual is not taxed).

All too many Democrats have already surrendered the high ground in this battle by accepting as a given the Bush claim that the Social Security system is headed towards bankruptcy by 2041.

This claim is absurd (the fund cannot go bankrupt as it is backed by the U.S. government) and false (the "bankruptcy" is based upon an assumption that the U.S. economy will only grow by 1.9 percent per year over the next two and a half decades, a ridiculously low growth rate).

Some conservative and cowardly Democrats have also expressed a willingness to consider reducing the inflation adjustment in Social Security checks--a kind of slow-moving cut back of Social Security which, by the time it is recognized, will no longer have the fingerprints of the knife-weilders on it.

The only correct stand at this point is no compromise. Social Security must be not jus t preserved; it must be bolstered.

The president has grasped that third rail. It's time to throw the switch and hit him with some high-voltage popular outrage.

8:36 am pdt

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