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Bush Gets B+ for Honesty, Even Courage, on Social Security

Commentary | MICHAEL KINSLEY

May 01, 2005|MICHAEL KINSLEY

Question: Is the poll troubling?

The president: Polls? You know, if a president tries to govern based upon polls, you're kind of like a dog chasing your tail. I don't think you can make good, sound decisions based upon polls. And I don't think the American people want a president who relies upon polls and focus groups to make decisions for the American people.

-- President Bush's

Thursday news conference

*

The comic high point of President Bush's prime-time news conference Thursday evening was this muddled disquisition on how the American people don't want the president to do what (polls say) the American people want the president to do.

This could be simple nonsense -- an unfortunate conflation of two rhetorical devices treasured by politicians of both parties, but best kept a few paragraphs apart. One is the insistence that they don't follow the polls. The other is substituting the phrase "the American people" for the word "I" in sentences like, "The American people demand immediate passage of HR 5712, the Grotesque Subsidies to Widget Producers Act." Or the president could be struggling toward some kind of Burkean notion that he has been elected to lead people, not to follow their whims, and leadership matters only when it takes people where they don't want to go. Bush hinted at this after his reelection, saying that he had earned "political capital" that he intended to spend. And I'm giving him credit for this high-minded explanation, based on the rest of his performance Thursday.

There was a remarkable amount of honesty and near honesty. Bush's rebuff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was superb. The people who oppose his judgeship nominees aren't prejudiced against religion, he said. They do it because they have a different "judicial philosophy." That is exactly the point. His characterization of the difference -- his opponents "would like to see judges legislate from the bench" -- is not quite right. Just a couple of weeks ago, his party tried desperately to force judges to "legislate from the bench" to prevent the removal of life support from Terri Schiavo. But a straightforward debate about judicial philosophy is indeed what we need.

Then it got even better. Starting with the cliche that in America you can "worship any way you want," Bush plunged gratuitously into a declaration that "if you choose not to worship, you're equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship." How long has it been, in this preacher-spooked nation, since a politician, let alone the president, has spoken out in defense of nonbelievers?

Above all, Bush was honest and even courageous about Social Security. Social Security is about writing checks: Money goes in, money goes out. As Bush has discovered in the last few months, there are no shadows to hide in while you fiddle with it. The problem is fewer and fewer workers supporting more and more retirees, and there are only two possible solutions: Someone has to pay more in, and/or someone has to take less out.

On Thursday, Bush didn't exactly go from explicitly denying this to explicitly admitting it. But he went from implicitly suggesting that his privatization scheme is a pain-free solution to implicitly endorsing a plan for serious benefit cuts. For a politician, that's an admirable difference.

Even more to Bush's credit, the plan he's backing is highly progressive. Benefits for low- income workers would keep rising with average wages, as now, but benefits for middle- and high-income people would be geared more toward merely keeping up with inflation. This allows Bush to say that no one's benefits would be cut, although some people would be getting up to 40% less than they are currently promised. But in the swamp of Social Security politics, that is really minimal protection from the alligators.

So Democrats now face a choice: Are they going to be alligators on this one? Why Bush has taken this on remains a mystery. There is no short-term political advantage, and there are other real long-term problems that are more pressing. But he has done it, to his credit.

As this column has argued to the point of stupefaction, Bush's privatization ideas are a mathematical fraud. There is no way that allowing people to manage a portion of the money they put into the system can produce a surplus to supplement their benefits or cushion the shock of the necessary cuts. But if privatization is truly voluntary, it can't do much harm. And if that's Bush's price for being out front on a real solution to the real problem, the Democrats should let him have it.

Unless they are complete morons -- always a possibility -- the Democrats could end up in the best of all worlds. They know in their hearts that Social Security has to change in some unpleasant way. Bush, for whatever reason, is willing to take this on, and to take most of the heat. And all he wants in return is the opportunity to try something that will alienate people from the Republican Party for generations.

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