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Bush, Rove and Social Security

The Bush Administration has been successful at winning campaigns and getting their agenda through Congress. The Bush campaign for Social Security reform and private accounts has been a different story and a strategic failure. How did the Bush strategists miss the target on Social Security?

Crisis may supply a political environment that is for a quick consensus. Typically major legislation effecting large segments of the population or many interest groups such as Social Security, health care, campaign laws and Medicare requires a bi-partisan build it up from the bottom approach. How did the legendary strategist, Karl Rove, send the White House on the road with a top down lone ranger strategy? Was it hubris?

One possible explanation is that the Bush administration was led astray with their success in the war on terrorism – Afghanistan, Iraq, the Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security all steam rolled into alignment for the Bush team. These were all resounding “successes” as measured by the standard that the President accomplished his goal of passage of his program.

September 11th created an instant crisis with a special political environment where the President, regardless of his previous popularity or ability, had a very high probability of uniting the public and elected leaders of both parties behind his program. In a crisis it is easier to build and gain consensus on a rapid basis. A crisis today and a quick bi-partisan solution tomorrow, is a frequent pattern in American politics.

Social Security and Private Accounts Roll-out

After re-election in 2004 the White House drummed on the “political capital” and “public mandate” message line. Given the success of the President since 9/11 and his re-election this was a very reasonable strategy to pave the way for legacy programs for the Bush Presidency with a second four year term and a Republican majority in Congress.

Social Security and private accounts were cast onto the political stage without an imminent crisis. Bush strategists tried mightily to foment a crisis in the minds of Americans, but it did not resonate because the actual fiscal crisis was a decade or more in the future. After the initial failure of private accounts to catch fire White House strategists sent the President on the road to hammer home the message. Little traction was gained by the President’s massive “60 Day-60 City” campaign effort. Detractors of the President’s plan with few resources easily undermined the Social Security reform and private accounts proposal.

Whether one likes the President’s ideas on Social Security and private accounts or not the end result is reminiscent of the Clinton 1993 health care reform debacle. Regardless of whether there are real problems with Social Security or not the debate is now very polarized and partisan positions have been staked in the turf.

Why didn’t the White House recognize their was no immediate crisis and they would need a bi-partisan approach to solve a problem as large, complex and vexing as Social Security? Historically to tackle a major issue effecting millions of people, many entrenched interest groups and elected officials; a broad and solid political foundation must be built from the bottom up. With elections every two years in our country any major issue will be politicized before final passage and thereby chip away at a bi-partisan foundation of support.

Any substantive change in our Social Security system will have to wait until there is an immediate crisis or the advent of a political strategy that considers the reality of American centrist politics and the difficulty of passing major legislation.

Post Mortem:

February 7, 2006

With introduction of the 2007 federal budget President Bush has called for a new approach to Social Security:

“Instead of pushing last year’s Social Security overhaul proposal, the President is calling for creation of a bipartisan commission to study ways to deal with soaring spending for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”

If the President can truly construct a bipartisan commission, pull in the key interest groups and operate a professional and thorough review and debate of the alternatives, this commission may be the constructive starting point. Taking on all three entitlement programs is may be overly ambitious.