As with most political battles, the set-to over Social Security reform has produced competing dramatic narratives. For the Democratic faithful, there's Al Gore fighting the good fight against the right's effort to privatize Social Security, the crown jewel of the New Deal. For Republicans there's George W. Bush, courageously tackling the Social Security crisis while Gore panders. But another story line has captured the imagination of the national political press. It goes something like this: Bush proposes his Social Security initiative; Gore attacks it as a risky scheme.
But then two respected elder statesmen from Gore's own party come forward to announce that Bush's approach is the only honest way to confront Social Security's impending collapse. Gore is thus exposed as either a hopeless policy Luddite or a demagogue, and perhaps both.
The "statesmen" at work here, of course, are senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Kerrey, both retiring at the end of this year. The two have mounted a concerted press campaign in support of their own plan to shift roughly 18 percent of current Social Security revenues into individual private accounts--a proposal similar to Bush's. Moynihan penned a column for The New York Times's op-ed page attacking the critiques of privatization as either scurrilous or absurd. And later he and Kerrey jointly authored another column along the same lines in Newsweek. All the while, they've made the rounds on the political chat shows, creating the misleading impression that their party is divided on the question of Social Security reform and spreading the notion that the consensus Democratic position on "saving" Social Security is unworkable and even dishonest.
This Moynihan-Kerrey road show has driven Social Security's supporters to near distraction. And it's also complicated the work of the folks down in Nashville, who would like to make the case that it's Bush's plan that is dishonest and irresponsible, not Gore's. But why do the opinions of these two senators carry so much weight with the press? Why is their say-so enough to stamp the privatization agenda with the imprimatur of bipartisan respectability?
Judging from the dominant press, you'd think Moynihan and Kerrey were models of principle cast against mindless partisans and poll-obsessed politicians on both sides of the aisle. One seldom finds either of their names not preceded by a phrase like "most respected" or "most independent." When Kerrey announced his retirement from the Senate last winter, the National Journal noted admiringly how "Kerrey's fierce candor and free-spiritedness drives Democratic leaders crazy." On Hardball Chris Matthews captured the conventional wisdom perfectly when he called Moynihan "one of the most respected members of the Senate [as well as] an expert on entitlement programs." He earlier identified the two men as "kind of a little clique in the Senate of moderate independent guys."
The only problem with this received opinion is that it's wildly at odds with Moynihan's and Kerrey's actual performance. Kerrey has sometimes displayed a streak of cowardice and opportunism when faced with difficult votes. And both men have tended to follow the conventional wisdom of official Washington more than any consistent set of political beliefs.
Think I'm being too harsh? Consider a few examples.
Take Kerrey's evolving stance on health care policy. Universal health care was the centerpiece of Kerrey's failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. During the campaign, he supported a single-payer plan, the root-and-branch approach to universal coverage. And he criticized Bill Clinton's plan for being insufficiently ambitious. But by the time the going got rough for health care reform in 1994 and the ideological tide had turned against universal coverage, Kerrey couldn't even bring himself to support Clinton's more market-oriented plan. "Disappointed, mystified, totally perplexed" is how Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, described reformers' reactions to Kerrey's turnabout at the time. "I cannot fathom this gargantuan change. He felt resolute about the single-payer approach being the only one that would work. Now, his mantra is the same mantra used by opponents of serious reform: government, bureaucracy, taxes."
Kerrey turned in an equally dubious performance during the budget battle the year before. One of the key reasons for the massive budget surpluses the country now enjoys is the Deficit Reduction Act of 1993 (or, as we might more accurately describe it, the tax increase of 1993). "We've come a long way since 1993, when we made the tough choices to get our government's fiscal house in order," Kerrey now says on his Senate Web site. But that's not exactly how he saw it seven years ago. Back in 1993, when Democrats passed their budget bill with single-vote margins in both houses of Congress (and lost control of both houses the next year), Kerrey had nothing but criticism. For days he kept the capital on tenterhooks, agonizing over whether he could bring himself to vote for a bill with so few spending cuts and so many tax increases for the wealthy. He finally announced his decision on the day of the vote with a tour de force of self-serving rhetoric. "If you are watching now, as I suspect you are," Kerrey told the president from the Senate floor, "I could not and would not cast a vote that would bring down your presidency." There's no rule against chang-ing your mind. But Kerrey does it a lot, and usually when it's politically convenient to do so.
Moynihan's policy legacy is admittedly more impressive. And the figure he cuts on Capitol Hill--bow-tied, erudite, and ebullient--has a certain appeal. But his recent career, too, has been marked by a striking inconstancy. On Social Security policy, he's been all over the map. Moynihan was part of the 1983 Social Security commission that took the program off a purely pay-as-you-go basis and set up a trust fund that could later be drawn upon as baby boomers reached retirement age. Now he says the whole concept is foolish and unworkable and, even more inexplicably, that he hadn't even realized this was being done. Early in the past decade, he attacked comparatively minor moves to fiddle with cost-of-living allowances as betrayals of a sacred trust. Now not doing so on a more massive scale is the height of irresponsibility.
The problem with the Moynihan-Kerrey plan is not so much that it is flawed or unworkable per se. One is either in favor of privatization or not; and the Moynihan-Kerrey proposal might be perfectly serviceable as privatization plans go. The problem is the dishonesty of both the presentation and the mechanics of the program. The heart of their proposal is a series of de facto benefit cuts, which in turn make it possible to do away with roughly 18 percent of payroll taxes. So Moynihan and Kerrey set this 18 per-cent aside to fund their new private accounts, presenting this as a way to save the program from fiscal collapse. But one needn't be an actuary to see through this reasoning. Since they take away roughly the same amount of revenues and benefits, the downscaled Moynihan-Kerrey Social Security program would have to be as solvent or insolvent as the old one. The only difference is that there would also be private accounts. Moynihan-Kerrey does nothing to shore up Social Security. It's just an ideological reshaping of the program dressed up as a technical adjustment.
The financial problems of the program are probably overstated. Current estimates of its long-term solvency are premised on low estimates of long-term growth. Also, there's the trust fund that an earlier incarnation of Moynihan was wise enough to help create. To err on the side of caution, one might make some of the cuts Moynihan and Kerrey are calling for. But if that were the goal, taking revenue out of the system is the last thing you would do.
Much of their proposal's credibility stems from Moynihan's reputation not just as a legislator but as a scholar. His charm comes partly from the impromptu history lessons he doles out to the press. But even these often don't bear close scrutiny.
For example, to hear Moynihan tell it, Franklin Roosevelt was practically a private accounts man back in the 1930s--he just hadn't quite worked out all the details. When FOX News commentator Mara Liasson asked him about Gore's plan to shore up Social Security with general revenue funds, Moynihan replied, "It's a perfectly respectable idea, but it's very much at odds with what Franklin Roosevelt wanted. He wanted a retirement system in which you have your number, your account, it's your money, you paid it in, you get it back, and no one's doing you any favor[s]."
There's an element of truth to this. The designers of Social Security felt a keen need to fund the new program with a special, dedicated tax that everyone would pay--both to imbed the program politically and to distinguish it firmly from the dole. Roosevelt himself was emphatic on the matter. But many of the program's original architects, such as Frances Perkins, Roosevelt's labor secretary, believed general revenue funds would eventually be needed to supplement payroll taxes. To say that buttressing the program with general revenue funds would have been anathema to the program's architects is a stretch. To imply that Perkins and company would have found Moynihan's current proposal more in line with their thinking is nonsense.
The point here isn't to quibble about the distant past. It is that most of Moynihan's history lessons might better be thought of as policy yarns: entertaining and didactic tales that bear only a loose relation to anything that actually happened. Yet none of this seems to detract from his reputation as the straight-shooting wise man of the Senate.
So why the eager genuflection by media leaders?
As affluent professionals, many elite journalists warm to the idea of private accounts that would make Social Security into something more like a 401(k). When Kerrey explained to Chris Matthews how his proposal would work, Matthews jauntily shot back, "That sounds exciting, and it sounds like the future." Some of the press reaction is due to sloppy thinking: If shills and hacks are the ones who reflexively toe the party line, then those who buck their party at every opportunity must be truth-tellers and principled statesmen. And so Moynihan and Kerrey's take on Social Security must be more creditable than that of the 40-odd Senate Democrats who disagree with them.
But this romance for antiparty mavericks goes beyond shoddy political analysis. Moynihan and Kerrey appeal to many Washington political reporters' disdain for politics. I don't just mean "politics" in the craven or venal sense of the word, but politics in the sense of battling for cherished causes, organizing coalitions, horse trading. These journalists are part of the supercilious center, the above-it-all middle. They subscribe to a sort of centrism that is less ideology than an expression of disdain and contempt for the messiness of politics and ideology in general.
Partisanship often gets a bad rap today. But being partisan can mean having strongly held beliefs, fighting for them doggedly, and uniting with others to put those beliefs into practice--hardly bad things. A willingness to criticize one's party when it deserves criticism may be a hallmark of statesmanship. But a propensity to do so, especially with an erratic political compass, is often a sign of querulousness and self-indulgence, jealousy and pique. The high marks Moynihan and Kerrey receive from the national press are less a matter of respect for politics than an alienation from it. The current debate over Social Security reform is terribly important. But Moynihan and Kerrey have precious little to add. ¤