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Using Chaos

Michael Crowley of the New Republic has a fascinating insight into the real game that House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas might be playing on Social Security, with some fascinating quotes. In short, his point is that this is what Thomas always does: make some noise that suggests he's independent or going to screw up the White House's plans, and then, when he's been treated with the proper deference, he falls into line: "While some Democrats may see Bill Thomas as a heroic dissident," Crowley writes, "when all is said and done, he may turn out to be just another House GOP apparatchik."

And there is certainly enough evidence mustered here to show a very clear record of Thomas's behavior. I've never paid much attention to Thomas, but people who have to deal with him seem to develop quite a obsession. He is a strange character, one of those politicians who raises a question that's always puzzled me: Why do people who don't seem to like people at all wind up in electoral politics?

Anyway, back to the point. Crowley's is an important reminder that every time we think the Republican command-and-control operation seems to be breaking down, they pull it back together. It's not just Thomas. Remember Senator Voinovich's vow to vote against any tax bill in 2003 that cost more than $300 billion? They laughed at him, tinkered some numbers to give him cover, and he voted for it. Same with the Medicare bill.

But something feels a little different this time. The basic Bush m.o. is to take something that's superficially popular in a general sense -- tax cuts, Medicare drug benefits, getting tough with bad guys like Saddam -- and stuff into that envelope outrageous specifics, daring anyone to oppose the basic principle. Two academic papers that I've mentioned before -- "Homer Gets a Tax Cut" by Larry Bartels, and "Abandoning The Middle: The Revealing Case of the Bush Tax Cut" by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson -- both show how this dynamic worked in the case of tax cuts, in which a very loose preference for lower taxes and total ignorance of the details was used to push through cuts the specifics of which would not survive any test of public opinion.

In this case, though, Bush does not -- or does not yet -- have the popular envelope into which to stuff private accounts. Republican members of Congress aren't hearing any constituency demand to change Social Security in any way, and the false claims of crisis are undermined not only by the facts but by the George Wills and Newt Gingriches who either didn't get the memo or chose to ignore it. And the fact that, as I've argued before, Bush himself did not put his neck on the line during the election to test the popular appeal of changing Social Security makes it very hard for him to convince members of Congress that they should.

Crowley concludes with an interesting quote: "What's much worse for the members of the House is to attempt Social Security and fail," [Michael] Tanner [of the Cato Institute] says. "If you get [reform], and the checks still go out to seniors in 2006, the [Democratic] scare tactics are over. But, if you try and fail, then everyone says, 'Aha! If they had succeeded, then you wouldn't be getting your checks.'"

That's the opposite of my own belief, a distinctly minority viewpoint, which has been that part of the game with Social Security was to force a debate between Republicans holding out limitless visions of universal prosperity and opportunity, and Democrats blocking it in the defense of a stale old boring program. In my view there's plenty to be gained by losing, and I think that still applies if the audience is not just people who are getting checks, but those who aren't -- the younger voters to whom this is pitched. Still, to win-by-losing, the White House needs to get to a level of credibility that is very far away.

But Tanner is right that members of Congress are going to be more scared of older voters. (Also known as "chronic voters.") And if what he is saying represents what the members believe then this is a very difficult moment for them. If this is what the members think, then they have to be terrified of even entering into the debate without some reasonable certainty that they can "win." And I don't see how they can have that certainty, especially knowing that the handful of Democrats in the Senate ready to play along on this is too small and getting smaller. At that point, they have to be thinking about how to change the subject, now. And if the White House isn't ready to change the subject, then they really will drift farther apart.

At that point, this gets interesting. Congressional politics, which lately has been about as interesting as watching robots reenact the Myth of Sisyphus, has suddenly become as complex and uncertain as it has been since the resignations of two Speakers of the House in quick succession back in 1999. Thomas is not the only member with his own wacky ideas, and when the White House loses control, they all come out of the woodwork. But that's the "normal" way Congress works, and sometimes it leads to getting things doen. Neither this White House nor the congressional leadership has ever had to operate under normal conditions in which Senators and representatives think and act for themselves. How at this late date can they adjust to it?

One possibility, as Kevin Drum suggests today and Ed Kilgore hinted at a week ago, is that there is a plan, and the plan is to change the subject to tax anti-reform. Agree with the Democrats to set up private accounts as add-ons to Social Security ("Crisis? Did we say crisis? You must have misunderstood -- you know the Chinese character for crisis is danger and opportunity -- we must have meant 'opportunity.' Yeah, that's it.") And then the private accounts become the popular envelope for ugly details, specifically allowing people to set aside unlimited amounts of money -- if they have unlimited amounts of money -- that accumulates tax-free.

On the other hand, what if there is no plan, or the White House is not ready or not graceful enough to carry off this slick move? At that point, chaos ensues. The challenge then for the opposition party is to nurture the chaos. Flatter various Republican potentates into thinking they can pull off various deals. Let them play with the payroll tax, consumption taxes, unified credits -- all things that in the end will go nowhere or Bush will veto. What's the payoff? It's not winning the congressional elections in 2006. It's this: just enough chaos around taxes and Social Security makes it possible, I think, to prevent this Congress from getting its act together to make the 2001-2003 tax cuts permanent.

And that is a goal every bit as important as saving Social Security. If it were possible to keep those tax cuts on track to expire, then its possible that government might one day be able to recover itself and once again play a constructive role in this country. If not, then in just 11 years, the total revenue of the federal government, as a percentage of GDP, will be consumed by defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest. There will be nothing else. Or, more likely, we continue to spend on basic public goods and run deficits that lead to economic disaster. That's at least as consequential as phasing out Social Security.

A few months ago, it was generally assumed that the battle on extending the tax cuts or making them permanent was lost. Maybe it still is. But -- danger and opportunity and all that -- maybe the Republican debacle on Social Security will have some bigger consequences.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 28, 2005 | Permalink


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I think Thomas's talk is geared to making people think about our tax system. If Congress does not go for private (I call them casino) accounts, the Republicans will try to get their privatization schemes some other way. Probably through a different system of taxation and by giving privae accounts yet another name.

Democrats should not contribute. Let whatever Republicans come up with be purely Republican. Through their underhanded maneuvers, Republicans will get whatever they want into any final bill anyway.

Posted by: Paul Siegel | Jan 29, 2005 3:10:12 PM

"That's the opposite of my own belief, a distinctly minority viewpoint, which has been that part of the game with Social Security was to force a debate between Republicans holding out limitless visions of universal prosperity and opportunity, and Democrats blocking it in the defense of a stale old boring program. In my view there's plenty to be gained by losing..."

I've found your theory on this very intriguing, but after pondering it for a while, on balance it fails the Occam's Razor test for me. What I think works better as an explanation is this paragraph from Ed Kilgore:

"But the second factor--keeping the debate in Washington as polarized as possible--is also important. There is zero doubt in my mind that Karl Rove thinks an ideologically polarized electorate will always tilt towards the GOP since self-identified conservatives outnumber self-indentified liberals by a three-to-two margin. At any given moment, you can expect Bush to be pushing at least one major initiative that literally makes Democrats crazy with rage. That rage, in turn, will make the actual policy dispute look like nothing more than a partisan food-fight to much of the non-polarized electorate, thus shifting the center of gravity of any given debate sharply to the right. Rove and Bush have pursued this strategy again and again. It's hardly infallible, but it does create a trap for Democrats unless they are smart enough to modulate their anger according to the actual importance of a given issue, and offer positive alternatives instead of just negative opposition."

If Kilgore is right, SS is going badly because the Rove strategy counts on the GOP to remaining united, and that's not happening with this issue. Without a united GOP, the issue can't get partisanly polarized in a way to benefit the right.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 30, 2005 4:15:03 PM