No Mandate for the AWOL
A lot of the basic rules of politics seem to have changed recently, but one that will never change is this: Politicians will always be extremely uncomfortable about being asked or forced to take political risks by others who aren't taking the same risks themselves.
There is even a wonderful phrase for this, going back to those intense first years of the Clinton administration: "getting BTU'd". Back in the early stages of the Clinton 1993 budget reconciliation bill, there was a plan to impose a tax on all energy usage based on the actual energy used, as measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs). This is not a bad policy, and would be an even better idea right now when energy conservation is far more urgent. But it was never going to be an easy sell politically, especially given that members of Congress from oil- and gas-producing states tend to gravitate toward the tax-writing committees. And it was sure to be unpopular everywhere, in exactly the same way that a gasoline-tax increase is unpopular. The Clinton administration was able to push the BTU tax through the House, but then when the bill went over to the Senate, where they needed every single Democratic vote, it became apparent that with Senators like David Boren of Oklahoma and John Breaux of Louisiana in key positions, it was totally dead. The Senate dropped the BTU tax, the White House did very little to try to force them to pass it, and the House members who had voted for it felt like they'd been hung out to dry. They had taken the risk of voting for something that was unpopular but good policy, as well as what their president wanted, but now they didn't have the good policy, the president didn't seem to care, and they had a horrible vote on their record.
They were angry at the Democratic Senators who didn't seem to feel the same obligation to support the president that they did. But they were also angry at Clinton, who didn't seem to put much pressure on the Senate or to put himself out publicly on the issue. As they saw it, he would not take the same risk that he had asked them to take. In the end, Clinton paid a big price for BTU-ing the House Democrats, perhaps including the loss of the House.
That's basically where Bush is right now on Social Security, although it's not quite the same situation. (For one thing, the BTU tax was a good policy. The only thing it has in common with Social Security privatization is that both are unpopular as hell.) Like Clinton, he is asking politicians to put themselves out on the line. Maybe they'll be able to defend their vote on Social Security, maybe not. But the reason he will ultimately fail, in a very big way, is that he himself didn't put himself on the line. Sure, he's talking about it now, he'll hold town meetings, he'll get the corporate backers of this scheme, plus the taxpayers, to fund some sort of campaign.
But when it counted, when his own political career was on the line, where was he? Nowhere. Yes, he mumbled something about private accounts occasionally in the campaign. But hardly anyone who voted for Bush thought that diverting two-thirds of the payroll tax into private accounts and paying for the transition costs with either crippling debt or reductions in future benefits was what they were voting for.
To see what I mean, imagine if Bush could call up the wavering Republicans today and say, "Look, dude, I went into your district. I campaigned for you. I told them that this was exactly what we were going to do with Social Security if they elected us. And they voted for us anyway." That would be a powerful political message. Those members would say, "Yes Mr. President," and go out there and put their necks on the line. But he can't make that call because he didn't take those risks. You might say he was AWOL.
After the election, I made the argument that Bush had no mandate because of the nature of his campaign, and others did as well. At the time, I thought we were engaged in an academic argument, or an argument about media coverage of the election, not one with immediate policy consequences. But here we are, the Congress hasn't even started, and the consequences are already apparent.
Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 14, 2005 | Permalink
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Underestimating conservative Republicans and this Administration is a mistake; a signal mistake. Most of the media coverage grants the Administration crisis line on Social Security. Republicans will fall in line as almost always. Let us worry about Democrats. Remember, George Bush won again. Do not underestimate.
Posted by: Ari | Jan 15, 2005 3:47:02 PM
What the Hell do you mean, he can't make that call? When was the last time the truth stopped him? He'll make the calls, and he'll tell the lies, and it will work.
Posted by: Frank Wilhoit | Jan 16, 2005 12:15:37 PM
The call will be made; there is always the religious right to call and call they will. I agree, do not underestimate Republican unity. Let's get some unity amomg the Democrats.
Posted by: lise | Jan 16, 2005 4:53:48 PM
You're forgetting that Bush is shameless.
Posted by: Duncan | Jan 18, 2005 7:25:03 AM