Because life is long, the other day driving back from Kissimmee, I recalled a similar point sixteen years ago — December 2002 — when Bush II looked unstoppable, had even gained seats in the first midterm of his presidency, a feat not seen since 1962 if not 1934. The GOP looked as if it extended him a comparable fealty, but as the months rolled on and the war got worse his popularity slid into historic lows, exposing the shallowness of his institutional GOP support — what, evangelicals at best? Without 9-11, Iraq, Katrina, he would’ve slid into the thirties or low forties anyway.
Matthew Yglesias recounts the forgotten story of how then minority leader Nancy Pelosi saved Social Security after Bush, peacock strutting after another narrow electoral victory, decided the beloved program needed privatizing and, my favorite buzzword, efficiency. He had every reason to be smug. “All the major legislation of Bush’s first term — tax cuts, Medicare reform, the Iraq War authorization, more tax cuts — passed with Democratic votes,” Yglesias writes. “Why should Social Security be any different?” Then:
If younger working people stopped paying Social Security taxes and started putting their money into private accounts instead, that would create a huge temporary hole in the federal budget. Many Republican members of Congress had spent the previous years embracing privatization as a solution for Social Security’s long-term solvency without understanding that privatization actually created an enormous short-term solvency problem. And the GOP had no consensus on how to surmount this difficulty.
Thanks to Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrats held their fire and did precisely nothing to help them. Pelosi’s strategy, Yglesias writes “was that any Democratic proposal would necessarily prompt intraparty infighting and muddy the waters, while Republicans simply had no way of resolving the internal contradictions of their own position.”
While Democrats refused to engage in the details of the debate, infighting consumed Republicans. And the fact that the whole idea was unpopular loomed larger and larger in the minds of GOP elected officials who had no particular stake in the details.
Bush attempted to barnstorm the country in support of privatization, but that only drew more attention to an embarrassing and unpopular situation. No bill ever came to a vote in either house of Congress.
I’ve published my cavils about Pelosi, whose leadership of Congress in January 2019 was never seriously in doubt. And she’s handled threats from Marcia Fudge and genuine, necessary demands from new legislators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who herself has been marvelous in recent days addressing the Mexican border crisis) with grace and little preening, despite the Problem Solvers deserving every flicker of shade.
The enthusiasm, on the other hand, for Trump in the GOP base looks stronger than for Bush II’s, more genuine. Racism has a clarifying effect. Finally — a candidate through whom high school-educated college whites, GOP satraps, Miami Cubans can project their resentments of brown-skinned people who won’t take their jobs, rob them at gunpoint, and won’t dress as women to stalk their daughters in public bathrooms! Should Trump and his sycophants in Congress attempt another sabotage of Social Security, it would provoke nary a snort from The Base.