The Last Battle

In early December, William Kristol went up to Cambridge to deliver the Theodore H. White Lecture at the Kennedy School of Government—a stem-winder on, what else, “The Meaning of the 2004 Election.” After an hour of talking mainly about the GOP, Kristol was asked in a Q&A to assess the Democrats’ current predicament. In his dry, wry, mordant way, Kristol pointed out that the Republicans had been in similar, and arguably worse, straits in 1993 and 1994—until the epochal battle over the Clinton health-care plan catapulted the party into control of both houses of Congress. Then, quietly, Kristol added, “If I were a Democrat today, I’d be looking at Social Security.”

For Democrats, Kristol’s remark should lend stark clarity to the nature and the stakes of the battle that now lies before them. On the eve of George W. Bush’s second-term inaugural, it’s easy to see, with some critical interpretation, that his crusade to partially privatize Social Security is an ideologically inverted incarnation of Bill Clinton’s quest for universal health care: a big, bold, legacy-defining piece of social reengineering, entailing enormous political risks (and, maybe, benefits) both for him and his party.

To any Republican with a sense of history (let alone irony), the possibility that Social Security ’05 could be a replay of health care ’94 (with the partisan polarities reversed) looks all too real, and scary as hell. To Democrats, however, it is, and should be, an opportunity to get up off the mat. What Kristol, probably driven by some dark, Machiavellian motive (he recently emerged in the Washington Post as a critic of Bush’s Social Security plans), was saying to Democrats was, Forget that you control no branch of government; this thing is winnable anyway.

Motives notwithstanding, he is almost certainly right—for just as the deck was stacked against Clinton during health-care reform, it’s fast becoming clear that it’s stacked against Bush now—and stacked against him in almost precisely the same way. Indeed, much of what follows will sound achingly familiar to anyone who followed the Clinton health-care imbroglio.

You have a congressional majority riven by factionalism and turf-consciousness. Senate Republicans crave bipartisanship. House Republicans don’t give a damn. Senate Republicans want Bush to outline general principles and let them write the legislation. House Republicans, more fearful of the political consequences of signing on to anything, want the White House to write its own legislation and then do the heavy lifting to bring the public onboard and to hit the hustings to build public support. Both want the legislative branch to reassert itself—whatever that means.

You have ideological schisms. Conservatives—Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp—want private accounts (letting workers divert a portion of their payroll taxes into the stock market) but no benefit cuts. Deficit hawks believe, plausibly, that any plan without cuts is nothing but smoke and mirrors. You have the influence of outside groups spending vast sums to influence the outcome. During health-care reform, the insurance industry, with its Harry-and-Louise ads, was a pivotal opposition force. With Social Security, Wall Street is expected to pony up in favor, and a clutch of well-heeled conservative outfits will see that the pro-reform case is blared at high volume in the media. Yet none of these is very likely to trump the loudest and most influential anti-reform group: the AARP. When I met recently with the group’s head of federal affairs, he said two things that captured my attention: (1) After noting that the AARP, unlike, say, the NRA, doesn’t endorse candidates, he added, “But who knows? For Social Security, maybe we’ll consider changing our policy”; and (2) with the AARP having already plunked down $5 million for anti-private-account ads, I wondered how much more the group might spend. The AARP man stared at an associate and said, “What’s our total operating budget? … Kidding … Let’s just say we will be make our voice heard.”

You have a president who, with his top aides, seems prepared to cast Social Security reform in world-historical terms; who seems to believe he has more political support on the Hill (not to mention in the country) than he does; and who seems to be less interested in merely passing legislation than in, as Karl Rove aide Peter Wehner wrote in a recently leaked White House memo on Social Security, accomplishing “one of the most significant conservative governing achievements ever.”You have a program of Rube Goldberg complexity that’s likely, as one Democrat puts it, “to expose the Republicans’ inner Ira Magaziner” and be difficult to explain to a public that had a hard time making a distinction, for instance, between the war in Iraq and the war on terror.

On top of all that, Republicans hold fewer seats in both the Senate and the House than the Democrats did during health-care reform. And, unlike Clinton, Bush is a lame duck—the argument that “the president needs this for his campaign” is no longer operative.

“We should draw a line in the sand,” says Reed, “and say, ‘Over my dead body. This is what we as Democrats believe.’ ”

In fact, the only area in which the political forces impeding Bush seem less formidable than those that hampered Clinton is in the form of party opposition. By 1994, the Republicans were an impressive guerrilla band. In the minority in the House for 40 years, they were ravenous for power. In Gingrich they’d found a charismatic, insurgent, reformist leader with no aversion to playing dirty. They had a strategic discipline backed by intellectual ballast that made them a force to contend with.

All of which brings us back, inevitably, to Kristol. In the famous memos he sent from his office at the Project for the Republican Future, he counseled a titanium-hard line. He said Republicans should commit themselves unequivocally to “killing” any Democratic health-care bill. “Sight unseen” they should oppose such bills. And should offer none of their own. Kristol based this stand on principle: Any Democratic bill would impose greater state intervention in the market, and Republicans were always against that. He also based it on strategic calculation: that Republicans would get no credit for any bill they signed, so what was the point of compromise? His argument was that the job of an opposition party was to become a majority. And if obstruction served that end, it was justified. What Kristol, Gingrich, and the rest of the GOP vanguard provided in 1994 was an object lesson in the efficacy of intransigence: They showed that a determined, if arguably demented, congressional minority could move the (political) world by simply saying no.

It would be absurd to assume that congressional Democrats, given their history, would have evolved to the level of the 1994 Republicans as an opposition party. They are still new to it, still feeling their way. But after seeing their ranks winnowed, and having been spurned and burned (or so they feel) by Bush during his first four years, they seem to be possessed of a mounting sense of feistiness and purpose. And so far their cohesiveness on Social Security—including some flashes of Kristoline steel—has been notable.

The famously centrist Democratic Leadership Council might have seemed most likely to seek a compromise with Bush. In the past, the DLC has been open to Social Security reform. But early in January, the group indicated it would oppose the Bush plan, and when I visited DLC president and former Clinton aide Bruce Reed, he adopted a posture ripped directly from the Kristol playbook: “On private accounts carved out from payroll taxes, we should draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No. Over my dead body. This is what we as Democrats believe, and we will not compromise.’ ” Reed added, “The most important thing is for Democrats to make sure we keep our ranks in line. We should do whatever it takes to make sure there are no defections.”

In maintaining discipline, Democrats will be handicapped by the absence of a Kristol—not to mention a Gingrich—of their own. (They could also use a Republican Hillary to serve as a juicy scapegoat.) In the place of a single intellectual tailgunner, the party will make do with a swarm of ex-Clintonites, who comprise a kind of Democratic strategic hive mind: Reed, Center for American Progress director John Podesta, Council on Foreign Relations fellow Gene Sperling, and a slew of others. “It’s not like they actually coordinate,” says another ex-Clinton strategist. “But they always wind up in the same place.”

Maybe the fastest-rising of the Clinton alums—and, some hope, a Gingrich in the making—is Illinois congressman Rahm Emanuel. With the recent death of Representative Bob Matsui, Emanuel found himself dually promoted: to Matsui’s seat on the House Ways and Means Committee and to the chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Emanuel, a longtime Democratic pol known for his speed-freak energy, his bluntness, and his ruthlessness (famously, he once sent a dead fish to a fellow Democrat who’d crossed him), is a former staffer for Tony Coelho, the DCCC chairman in the eighties who made terrific political hay over Social Security in the Reagan years. So there’s history here.

In the wake of a crushing election year, Democrats now find them confronted with a battle that is, in some ways, more profound than any election can be. Elections, after all, are constantly coming around, but Social Security, conceived and defended as a social insurance program, has been intact for nearly 70 years. And it is very close to the essential core of what the Democratic Party is supposed to be about.

For Democrats, then, the looming war is a kind of test: a test of their capacity to function as a serious opposition party; a test of their wiles and scrappiness; and, most sobering, a test of their continuing relevance. As Bruce Reed puts it, “If we can’t win this battle, what good are we?” If Democrats can’t win this battle—or, at least, lose it well—the question, I’m afraid, will answer itself.

The Last Battle