Internal Bleeding

Just last year, congressional Republicans had a powerful scapegoat in Congress. Anything they couldn’t accomplish, they blamed on Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Unable to confirm President George W. Bush’s controversial judicial nominees? It was the “obstructionist” Daschle’s fault. Couldn’t get the energy bill through the Senate? Daschle was to blame.

And then Daschle lost his re-election bid last fall; the same elections that increased Republican numbers in both the House and the Senate. And with his “mandate” from voters, Bush has decided to pursue an unusually ambitious domestic agenda in his second term, the centerpiece of which is a partial dismantling of Social Security to create private investment accounts.

The biggest obstacle for Bush this year is not any Democratic congressional leader, however. It’s the Republicans in Congress who are thinking about their next election, something Bush doesn’t have to worry about ever again. “The real fireworks this year will be between the GOP Congress and the Republican White House,” says Brad Bannon, a Washington-based Democratic consultant. “Bush wants to leave a legacy and there’s no better legacy than to dismantle the FDR New Deal legacy, even if it destroys the congressional majority in his own party.”

Congressional Republicans, uncharacteristically, have spoken out against Bush’s Social Security plan. House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), whose committee will pen reform in the House, told Tim Russert of NBC on Jan. 23 that Social Security is a “problem,” not a crisis. And at an earlier forum, he said the White House proposal would be a “dead horse.”

Thomas is by no means the lone Republican on this. Last month, Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) told Minnesota Public Radio: “Right now, to be very candid with you, we don’t have broad Republican support, let alone bipartisan support for [Bush’s] plan that was outlined during the campaign.” And Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) told The Washington Post, “Why stir up a political hornet’s nest — when there is no urgency?”

Perhaps they are reading the polling numbers that the president professes to despise. A Newsweek poll released Feb. 5 shows that 56 percent of voters think creating private investment accounts — in which Americans can put some of their Social Security money in the stock market — is “too big a risk,” while 36 percent of voters think it’s a “necessary risk.” A Quinnipiac University poll released Feb. 2 shows younger voters — who won’t have to worry about Social Security benefits for decades and vote in low numbers — support the plan by a 61 to 35 percent margin. Baby boomers also back it 53 to 43 percent, but older voters — who turn out in high numbers — oppose it 56 to 34 percent. Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told the Associated Press that public momentum needs to build for the plan in the next 90 days, or else lawmakers will be discouraged “from moving ahead.”

That may not be the only thing discouraging them, however. Because Bush has not set forward a specific plan for how to go about rescuing Social Security, he gets credit for raising the problem but won’t get criticized if nothing happens. His proposal won’t fail because he didn’t present Congress with a detailed proposal in the first place. He still gets points for his legacy. It’s a win-win.

Who will get blamed if nothing happens? It’s hard for Republicans to blame Democrats, when they aren’t in the majority (as in 2002) and they don’t have a leader who’s been pilloried in the press for standing in the GOP’s way (as in 2004). Instead, voters might take out their anger on the people who didn’t do anything about the plan — and with the party’s leader off the ballot, that means congressional Republicans.

Worried about their next race, lawmakers may feel they have more freedom to oppose Bush than they did just a year ago. As a “veteran” lobbyist recently told The New York Times, “What held the Republicans together in the Senate last time was the desire to see Bush through to re-election and a sense that their fates were tied to his. That’s no longer true.”

Republican leaders are trying to convince nervous members that Social Security — long deemed the third rail of American politics — is safe to touch. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) isn’t running for re-election next year, although he does seem to have presidential ambitions, for which he might receive help from Karl Rove, so look for Frist to be a loyal soldier. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has said he thinks Social Security will actually help candidates next year. He points to Bush and Sens. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.) as examples of candidates who talked about Social Security and won.

But Social Security was far less a factor in 2004 than issues such as homeland security, Iraq, the economy and “moral values.” Moreover, Dole had the advantage of high name recognition following her stints in the Cabinet, Red Cross and brief presidential campaign. She won by 54 percent, a slim enough margin to cause her Democratic opponent to run again in 2004. Sununu, the son of a former governor, won with just 51 percent.

Senate moderates up for re-election next year, such as Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), are likely to have plenty of questions about Bush’s plan. Both of their states voted for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year. (Snowe told CNN last month, “There is a lot of fear among seniors” about the plan.) And some House Republicans, who were duped into supporting Medicare reform after a three-hour vote and misleading budget figures from the administration, may want to think twice before signing on to Social Security. With Democrats united against tinkering with the New Deal program, Bush will need every Republican to pass reform.

And, as Bannon points out, the mid-term election during a president’s second term tends to favor the party out of power historically. Given the Republican dominance of Washington in recent years, “the GOP will have to take moral ownership of their own actions or inactions and will not be able to pass the proverbial buck to the Democrats anymore.”

Of course, there’s another alternative, assuming Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security fails. Because many Americans don’t want to fix Social Security when it isn’t quite broke, they may breathe a sigh of relief that nothing happened. In the end, it’s a victory for Democrats, too. Not only is Social Security safe, but Bush’s lame-duck status is confirmed. And that makes him much less potent when he’s campaigning for House and Senate candidates in 2006.

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