A Battle Progressives Can Win

President Bush claims the 2004 election gave him a mandate to pursue his No. 1 second-term priority, the partial privatization of Social Security. But the voters don't think so. Only 35 percent of Americans think Bush has a mandate “to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market,” while 51 percent say he has no such mandate, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted just after Bush's re-election victory.

But Bush is gambling his winning streak on persuading a majority in Congress to vote to dismantle the most popular and successful social-insurance program in the nation's history. And, even though he and his allies are still debating crucial and very controversial details, Bush has pledged to get legislation through Congress this year (before the 2006 midterm election year begins).

For progressives, the battle for Social Security represents a rare opportunity to stop the newly re-elected president dead in his tracks, to demonstrate the bankruptcy of his extreme conservative agenda, and to point to a new politics of “shared security” around which we can build a new majority for change. Winning won't be easy, but a powerful combination of progressive forces -- national organizations, political funders and philanthropists, policy experts, and grass-roots and online networks (including veterans of the 2004 elections) -- are coming together.

In tackling Social Security, Bush has set a much more difficult goal than anything he attempted in his first four years. His tax cuts were heavily skewed to the rich and his Medicare prescription-drug plan gave a bonanza to the HMOs and drug industry, but any senator or representative who voted for them could tell voters, “I got you a tax cut,” or “I got you a new drug benefit.” A Bush plan that cuts Social Security benefits in order to finance risky speculation in the stock market -- while adding $2 trillion to the national debt over 10 years -- would require a much more tortured explanation by any senator or representative foolhardy enough to vote for it.

The whole effort to block Bush will stand or fall on massive public education. That's because the more people learn about privatization, the worse it looks. In Bush's first term, Republicans were solidly united behind their president while Democrats were divided. Now, congressional Republicans are worried and splintered, uncertain whether walking the privatization plank will violate their conservative principles or undermine their chances for re-election. And so far, Democrats are pretty unified.

For progressives, victory requires getting enough votes -- either defeating the Bush plan outright in both houses or sustaining a filibuster in the Senate by getting at least 41 firm “no” votes. To date, not one of the 45 Democrats in the new Senate has defected to the privatizers (and their new leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, is working to keep it that way). By contrast, several of the 55 Republicans have expressed serious doubts about supporting the president on Social Security.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hopes to keep her 203 House Democrats united and win over at least 15 Republicans. For every Democrat who defects (so far only one, Allen Boyd of Florida, has), anti-privatizers will need to win over another Republican. But this time, it's Republicans who are shaky. Tom Davis, chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee, told The Wall Street Journal that “roughly 30 House Republicans, including himself, are already inclined to oppose Mr. Bush” on Social Security.

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The president's strategy is familiar from the run-up to his invasion of Iraq: Manufacture a sense of crisis and then accuse critics of irresponsibly exposing Americans to danger, this time not weapons of mass destruction but the equally mythical claim that Social Security will soon “go bankrupt.” Once the crisis atmosphere is established, doubters can be intimidated, and extreme measures, like cutting guaranteed benefits, can be justified because they can't be guaranteed any longer anyway.

Social Security crisis-mongering was the centerpiece of Bush's post-election economic conference. But the day before his White House conference, the Economic Policy Institute assembled a distinguished group of economists to brief more than 30 reporters about the fatal flaws in the president's arguments.

Two days later, December 16, the Campaign for America's Future held a press conference in the middle of Bush's meeting. Leaders of major national membership organizations -- AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Kim Gandy of the National Organization for Women, Julian Bond of the NAACP, George Kourpias of the Alliance for Retired Americans, and Marty Ford of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities -- pledged to activate their memberships to work, with hundreds of other groups, to stop the privatization of Social Security. They described a nationwide, grass-roots campaign, keeping opponents united -- and then, when the very unpopular details of the Bush plan are finally made public, a targeted constituent-based effort to convince key swing Republicans that voting for privatization would either violate their conservative principles about fiscal responsibility or endanger their political future.

Statewide coalitions, many led by groups like USAction and the Economic Analysis and Research Network of state think tanks, are holding local Social Security forums and making visits to their congressional delegations. Online activism groups, like Working Assets and the Campaign for America's Future, have flooded Congress with more than 150,000 faxes and e-mails with a simple message: “Don't you dare privatize Social Security.” Many Internet bloggers have also joined the crusade, demanding to know where members of Congress stand on privatization. Now AARP, representing 36 million seniors, is backing up its opposition to privatization with real resources, launching a $5 million advertising campaign timed to coincide with the start of the new Congress -- just the beginning of an effort “to block the creation of private accounts financed with payroll tax revenues.” AARP is also joining with “Rock the Vote” to show young voters how they will be hurt most of all by privatization.

Many of the political donors who supported the independent organizing efforts of “527” organizations like America Coming Together have begun to pledge funds to achieve a double goal: to defeat Bush on his most important legislative priority while mobilizing the activist organizing infrastructure in key states and districts that they helped to build in 2004. Leaders of MoveOn.org have indicated that they will work to engage in the campaign for Social Security their 2.8 million (mostly younger) members, most of whom are highly motivated to thwart Bush on his key legislative goal. And recent history has shown that when engaged on an issue, MoveOn activists can communicate massively with Congress, raise large amounts of money for creative and targeted advertising, and mobilize hundreds of informed constituents in key congressional districts to demand (and get) face-to-face meetings with their representatives.

In 1994, William Kristol's infamous memo united Republicans to kill Bill Clinton's health-care plan “in any form” because its passage would signal the rebirth of progressive government that solved real problems Americans face. Their opportunistic victory led to a period of conservative dominance of American politics. Now, progressives are uniting to stop George W. Bush's attempt to kill America's most important program of “shared security.” If we win, we will not only set back the radical right-wing Bush agenda; we will be launching a new era of progressive resurgence.

Roger Hickey is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future and leads its Social Security campaign. He is also co-author of The Next Agenda Blueprint for a New Progressive Movement.

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