Something almost unprecedented is happening to George W. Bush -- and on his big day. Leading Republican legislators are raining on his parade.
One by one, key Republican congressional leaders are distancing themselves from Bush's Social Security privatization plan. On Tuesday, House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas unkindly termed the Bush plan "a dead horse." Yesterday, Louisiana Representative Jim McCrery (who chairs the Social Security Subcommittee) sounded almost desperate, echoing Thomas's stunning statement that, in order to get "Democrats on board," Republicans would even consider raising the ceiling on the payroll tax.
For the first time, a signature Bush initiative could go down, before it is even put into legislative form. And there is only one reason: Democrats are unified in their opposition and are hanging tough.
Bush, after all, has legislative majorities in both Houses. But privatizing Social Security requires either raising taxes, or cutting benefits, or increasing the national debt. Any one of these approaches causes some group of Republicans to get off the bus. That's why the Republicans are looking so desperately for bipartisan cover.
If the Republicans are desperate enough to talk tax increases, it would be much better to solve the very modest shortfall in the Social Security accounts by restoring the pre-Bush tax code on the top 1 percent of Americans. Let the Republicans be the ones to propose raising taxes on the upper middle class by lifting the cap on wage and salary income subject to Social Security taxes (currently $87,000). What a delicious turnabout.
Speaking to a National Journal forum on Tuesday, Representative Thomas bluntly declared that the president's plan could not pass, "given the politics of the House and Senate." Translation: The Democrats, for a happy change, are not intimidated by Bush and are resolute in their opposition, while the Republicans are running for cover.
This is not yet a victory for the forces opposed to Social Security privatization; it is only a tactical regrouping by Republicans. A few Democrats could still snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. But for now, the White House is out of synch with the Republican congressional leadership, and those leaders are worried about holding their members. Increasingly, it looks as if Bush will win only if a few Democrats help him out -- as some did on his tax cuts and his Medicare bill.
It goes almost without saying that the Democrats, on the verge of delivering George W. Bush his first major legislative defeat, would be absolutely nuts to provide bipartisan cover for anything that included any form privatization. When Bush drops his assault on Social Security, then the two parties can take a true bipartisan high road, and discuss ways to augment the trust fund, and whether to include "add-on" accounts that don't raid the existing system.
In the meantime, the Democrats celebrate the start of Bush's second term by demonstrating that the president has a glass jaw and by savoring a rare victory on a key issue that divides the parties and that bonds most voters to Democrats. Nothing would do more to lift Democratic spirits and to end the prolonged post-election funk that has hung over the party since November 2.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.