They're Ba-ack

In August, on the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act, the White House released a three-sentence presidential statement. “For 70 years,” it read, “Social Security has been a vital program and helped millions of America's seniors in retirement. The Social Security system is sound for today's seniors, but there is a hole in the safety net for younger workers. On this 70th anniversary, we renew our commitment to save and strengthen Social Security for our children and grandchildren, and keep the promise of Social Security for future generations.”

So uninspiring and perfunctory were the remarks attributed to President Bush to “celebrate” the historic date that they might well have been taken as a sign of surrender rather than determination. Yet those who know the stubborn Bush best insist that he has yet to abandon a policy objective cherished for decades by him and the conservative movement he represents. “I don't think he's lost any of his zeal for Social Security reform,” claims Republican strategist and lobbyist Charles Black, a longtime Bush ally and former partner of the late GOP Chairman Lee Atwater.

Zealous as he may be, Bush is now relying on congressional Republicans to pursue his mission. While many remain wary of the electoral price they may pay for pushing privatization, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has endorsed a bill that would privatize a portion of the Social Security surplus by placing U.S. Treasury bonds in individual accounts. The so-called GROW accounts, sponsored by Jim McCrery of Louisiana, who chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, would do nothing to ensure the system's solvency -- and in fact would undermine the trust fund on which future benefits depend and balloon the federal deficit without significantly increasing household savings. There's no telling yet how post–Hurricane Katrina politics will affect the bill's chances. It may well make it through the House, although it appears to have little chance of passage in the Senate.

Whether such legislation is a clever means to revive privatization or merely an “exit strategy” for the White House remains to be seen. But what is important to understand -- no matter what may transpire as the congressional session concludes -- is that the Republican Party, the conservative movement, and their corporate allies remain committed to dismantling Social Security, if not this year then next, or whenever the first opportunity arises.

As Paul Krugman suggested in a column arguing that privatization “seems to be dead for the time being,” the stalled Bush initiative provides perspective on politics in our time, with the White House habitually “misrepresenting its goals, lying about the facts, and abusing its control of government agencies.”

The privatization crusade also offers a broader lesson in the strategies of modern conservatism -- notably, how the right mobilizes corporate power behind a false front of “diversity.” The creation of a conservatism that “looks like America” is among the most significant political successes of the past 30 years -- a period that happens to coincide with the first serious drive to dismantle Social Security since the end of the New Deal.

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For most of the past century, conservatism represented a self-conscious ideological minority with few pretensions to mass political appeal. Its authors and advocates, most of them frankly elitist, would have been offended if told that they ought to represent, or at least claim to represent, the true interests of women, racial minorities, the young, the old, or the middle class. Conservatives saw themselves as the upholders of an older tradition that regarded sexual and racial empowerment not as an advancement of society but as a threat to the social order.

Whether that traditional outlook has really changed or merely accommodated change, the perception of conservatism has shifted drastically. Americans of all races, religions, social classes, and sexual identities are willing to align themselves with the right. That shift, with all its consequences for American politics, has resulted from a highly conscious effort by conservative organizations to appeal to groups across the social boundaries that the old ideological elite would not -- or could not -- approach.

Often as they may mock liberals for indulging in “identity politics” and “dividing America,” conservatives have spent huge amounts of money and substantial intellectual capital to pander to the same groups -- or at least to create the appearance of doing so. In the conservative drive to destroy Social Security, it has been particularly important -- and challenging -- for them to manufacture the illusion of universal appeal. That this illusion became widely accepted during the past few decades is a testament to the persistence of those who sought to fabricate it, and to the transformation of conservatism's own image during this era.

Yet although much has changed in American politics since Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935, much remains surprisingly similar. FDR faced the unwavering hostility of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which have now renewed the angry struggle of those early days. Now, however, these powerful organizations understand that voters don't trust big business, so they hide behind other names. Along with the Business Roundtable, NAM and the chamber are promoting privatization behind two innocuous-sounding fronts: the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security, or COMPASS, and the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security (which sounds like it might have been founded by the labor movement).

In Roosevelt's day, the Republican right lacked the sophisticated “noise machine” that now dominates American political discourse through talk radio and cable television. The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Club for Growth, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the National Center for Policy Analysis, and the Scaife, Olin, and Smith Richardson foundations didn't exist back then. Despite all the changes in technology and society that have occurred since the Depression era, however, the fundamental interests and ideologies that were hostile to progressive goals have scarcely changed since then.

In substance if not in form, the foundations and organizations that have financed, conceived, and organized the campaign to phase out Social Security bear a close resemblance to the old elites that bitterly opposed the New Deal. As historian Kenneth Davis explains, those Depression-era titans of corporate power and wealth boasted “a large control over mass communications … an abundance of money with which to finance political campaigns … and powerful legislative lobbies.” In short, a situation not so very different from that which exists in America today. Today's privatizers represent the same interests as the program's old opponents (and some, including former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont and right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, happen to be the direct descendants of FDR's ancient antagonists), but today they operate under friendlier-sounding names and more inclusive-looking fronts.

The Right-Wing Race Card

On a weekday morning in July 2004, a chance mishap led to a brief, unscripted encounter on cable television that revealed how modern conservatism seeks to manufacture the appearance of broad public support for the narrowest elements of its agenda.

Viewers of C-SPAN's Washington Journal were expecting to see an interview of a black conservative. Mychal Massie, a retired businessman affiliated with a right-wing African American organization known as Project 21, was scheduled to appear at 9:30 a.m. But Massie never arrived at the C-SPAN studio on Capitol Hill because his car got a flat tire. Someone else from Project 21 had to rush over to take his place in front of the camera. Nobody was available on such short notice except the group's executive director.

This sudden change clearly stunned Robb Harlston, the C-SPAN anchor hosting Washington Journal that morning, who also happens to be black. Staring at the man who had walked into the studio and introduced himself as Project 21's executive director, Harlston couldn't help blurting the obvious on live television. “Um … Project 21 … a program for conservative African Americans … you're not African American.”

Harlston was quite right: David Almasi, the executive director and sole employee of a group purporting to speak for African Americans, was undeniably a white man.

Joshua Holland, a writer for The Gadflyer who watched this spectacle unfold on his television screen, aptly described Almasi's surprise appearance as “an awkward Wizard of Oz moment.” It laid bare the real relationship between what appeared to be a black grass-roots organization and its sponsors in the Republican political apparatus.

Almasi, whose résumé describes him as a “public-relations veteran” with experience at several conservative outfits in Washington, quickly tried to explain away his embarrassing whiteness. “I want to make clear right at the beginning,” he said, “that I'm an employee, I'm an employee of Project 21, my bosses are the [black] members of Project 21, the volunteers … . I take my marching orders from them, not from anybody else.” Actually, Almasi takes his marching orders -- and his paycheck -- from his real bosses at the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), a Washington-based right-wing think tank and direct-mail outfit that created Project 21 as an “initiative” more than a decade ago. The aim was to put black faces on conservative messages -- through an entity operated and funded by white conservatives.

The NCPPR is very well connected in Washington Republican circles. Until October 2004, the group's board included Jack Abramoff, the once-powerful lobbyist and Republican activist currently under investigation by the Justice Department and the Senate Commerce Committee for swindling Indian tribes and corrupting members of Congress. (Over the summer he was indicted on unrelated fraud charges involving a Florida casino-boat company he co-owned with a New York businessman.) Abramoff funneled substantial sums into the NCPPR, but money from dubious benefactors alone hasn't kept the center afloat. Like Cato and Heritage, the smaller think tank has received a stream of annual subsidies for decades from the Scaife, Castle Rock (Coors), and Bradley foundations that total well into the millions of dollars. Sophisticated conservatives have long understood that they can never succeed in dismantling Social Security -- or achieving their other long-term objectives -- if the only visible and enthusiastic supporters of their policies are wealthy white men.

Constituency-oriented organizations like Project 21 fulfill various purposes, from recruiting fresh faces to deflecting charges of racism to attacking established civil-rights and advocacy organizations. A right-wing black minister such as Project 21 member (and publicity hound) the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson sounds more credible than a white conservative when he appears on FOX News Channel to complain that by protecting Social Security, “the Democratic Party is working to keep black folks on the plantation of the government.” Nothing could be more useful to the privatization campaign than erecting that kind of populist facade.

Convincing African Americans that Social Security is a “bad deal” for them and their families has been a key element of the overall privatization strategy for more than two decades. This has been a conservative line of argument since 1983, when the National Center for Policy Analysis -- yet another right-wing think tank, based in Dallas -- issued a study claiming that the average young black male wouldn't live long enough to collect retirement benefits. According to the center's Web site, its findings “appeared on the front page of countless newspapers across the country.”

Playing the race card has remained a favorite gambit of the privatization lobby, with Project 21 and other groups disgorging piles of reports, studies, press releases, and op-ed columns over the past decade devoted to the same theme: Social Security is unfair to black Americans.

Bush himself expanded on this theme on January 24, when he held a closed meeting at the White House with about 20 prominent black conservatives -- mostly clergymen, business executives, and lawyers -- associated with Cato, Heritage, Project 21, and other groups that served as convenient props to deliver his message. “African American males die sooner than other males do,” according to the president, “which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people.”

Authoritative studies and government actuaries have debunked that claim repeatedly over the years. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office issued a new report that again found no discrimination against blacks in the distribution of Social Security benefits. Black Americans are skeptical about these expressions of concern from the president and other conservatives: Polls show that black voters have rejected Bush's plan even more decisively than their fellow citizens.

Under The Astroturf Carpet

More broadly, organizations of varying sizes and descriptions have emerged to sell privatization to a skeptical public. Some of these groups appear to exist only as Web sites with no identifiable leadership, such as the strange Retiresafe.org; others feature the same few well-known names associated with the Cato Institute and the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security; others seem to function strictly as tentacles of White House deputy chief of staff (and privatization whip) Karl Rove. In keeping with the “message discipline” of the Bush White House, they coordinate constantly and repeat the same phrases about “strengthening Social Security” with “personal accounts.”

So many of these organizations have cropped up that the privatization lobby has come to resemble a conglomerate metastasizing out of control. Aside from the traditional array of major right-wing edifices -- including Cato, Heritage, AEI, Americans for Tax Reform, the National Center for Policy Analysis, the National Center for Public Policy Research, the Hoover Institution, and the Manhattan Institute -- the privatization coalition includes a number of additional entities of varying authenticity.

Many of these other groups exist as little more than letterheads and Web sites. To understand the lobby's motives and strategies, it is instructive to examine such pure astroturf entities as For Our Grandchildren, RetireSafe.org, and Women for a Social Security Choice. That last group was set up by Leanne Abdnor, a veteran corporate lobbyist and Republican activist, who has declined to reveal the sources of its funding. It has no members.

Abdnor herself is virtually a human template of the privatization network. Back in the Nixon era, she began her Washington career as an assistant to Senator Strom Thurmond. She became a lobbyist and eventually was hired to represent Koch Industries -- founding corporate patron of the Cato Institute -- on Capitol Hill. Ten years ago, she joined Cato as the think tank's vice president of external affairs. She is currently the executive director of Women for a Social Security Choice and serves on the national advisory council of For Our Grandchildren (still another astroturf outfit). Abdnor, who frequently appears on radio and television to represent the “female perspective” on Social Security, has told reporters that her group is “independent of the White House.” But she worked as a supporting act for several of Bush's town meetings last spring, appearing with him in Florida, Colorado, and Arizona.

Outfits like Project 21 and Women for a Social Security Choice don't need to succeed in any conventional sense. By manufacturing the appearance of diversity, they have achieved as much as their creators could reasonably expect. For conservatives, courting women and minorities is an unavoidable if often unrewarding political necessity.

The Grifters

In some ways the most pressing propaganda target for Bush's privatization network is the elderly, whose political power must be neutralized before Social Security can be dismantled. With more than 35 million members, the nonpartisan AARP is undoubtedly the most powerful citizen lobby in Washington. AARP's advertising blitz against privatization -- combined with efforts by the labor movement, the Campaign for America's Future, and other progressive grass-roots groups -- frustrated the enormously expensive campaign undertaken by Bush's corporate and political allies last winter and spring.

Aside from annoying the president, AARP presented a tempting target to what might be called the “grifter” element of the Republican right. Older people tend to be more conservative politically, yet their interests are represented in Washington by an organization that conservatives deride as liberal. It was inevitable that conservatives would seek to contest the sprawling political terrain controlled by the senior-citizen organization. But the hucksters who challenged AARP over privatization brought no credit on their cause or to the president.

The right-wing group known as United Seniors Association, or USA Next, has nagged and needled AARP for years without attracting much attention. With the commencement of the struggle over Social Security, however, came new opportunities.

The man who created United Seniors in 1991 was ultra-right direct-mail impresario Richard Viguerie, an industry pioneer and dedicated ideologue who has yearned to abolish Social Security ever since he worked on Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. Under his leadership, United Seniors protected the interests of seniors about as reliably as Colonel Sanders protects the interests of chickens. He originated the direct-mail “Social Security” ploy later used by dozens of groups, notably the National Center for Public Policy Research, to separate senior citizens from their money.

On United Seniors letterhead, Viguerie regularly sent ominous, official-looking letters to elderly voters, telling them that politicians had “spent all the money” in the Social Security Trust Fund. To rescue their retirement, he urged the jittery seniors to send checks immediately to his post-office box. He churned out these mailings by the millions while pocketing a hefty proportion of the profits -- and prompting investigations by state and federal agencies.

Viguerie has since moved on, but United Seniors continues under the leadership of one Charlie Jarvis, a religious-right activist and former Reagan administration official. Unlike his predecessor, who kept a low profile for decades, Jarvis enjoys press attention and sometimes talks more than he should. In a brief interview with The New York Times Magazine, he agreed that he saw his mission as “dismantling Social Security.” United Seniors' counsel is another former Reagan official named Curtis J. Herge, whose previous legal clients include a phony Holocaust survivors group and a bogus anti-gambling organization that once fronted for casino mogul Donald Trump -- all of which qualified him to represent an organization that maintains the business ethic established by its founder.

In August 2003, the federal government fined United Seniors more than $500,000 for sending out “misleading” mail designed to look like “some sort of official mailing containing information from the Social Security Administration.” (Until 2002, the directors of USA Next also included the ubiquitous Abramoff.) That penalty was upheld in late August by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. While Jarvis likes to boast that United Seniors has more than a million members, very few of them seem to pay dues, according to the organization's tax returns. Of the more than $25 million in revenues reported for 2003, less than $2 million was attributed to membership dues. In recent years, most of its budget has been subsidized by the pharmaceutical industry, which essentially uses United Seniors to launder support to Republican members of Congress. The Washington Monthly reported that during the 2002 midterm elections, United Seniors spent about $14 million in “unrestricted educational grants” from drug companies on advertising “defending” GOP incumbents for voting in favor of Bush's Medicare bill.

Not long after the president commenced his privatization campaign, Jarvis launched his latest blitz against AARP. The cause was new, but the rhetoric was tiresomely familiar. United Seniors had attacked AARP many times, invariably accusing the giant nonpartisan group of “liberalism.” The only notable innovation -- which attracted immediate media coverage -- came when Jarvis announced that he had hired the same political consultants who produced the “Swift Boat” commercials that defamed John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign. These character assassins, he vowed, would “dynamite” AARP.

In a demonstration of the firepower they threatened to use, Jarvis posted an ad on the Web site of The American Spectator magazine. It insinuated that the utterly mainstream and traditional AARP disdains American soldiers and advocates gay marriage. Few AARP members were likely to believe such sensational lies, but the ad provided a momentary media impact. (It also sparked a lawsuit by the gay married couple whose wedding photo appeared in the ad without their permission.)

Such farcical assaults scarcely rose to the level of harassment; they were more like a flea gnawing at an elephant. But while Jarvis may never peel away a million AARP members to enrich his own organization -- as he once vowed -- USA Next has already joined the rest of the GOP's astroturf chorus in praise of GROW accounts, “progressive indexing,” and any other scheme that the privatization lobby may devise in the weeks and months ahead.

The privatizers lost round one last spring, but they see this as a 15-round heavyweight bout, and they're prepared to go the distance. If the McCrery legislation passes the House, the privatizers will claim victory in round two. Progressive groups, far from lulling themselves into the notion that privatization is dead, need to keep the gloves on.

This article is adapted from Joe Conason's forthcoming book, The Raw Deal: How the Bush Republicans Plan to Destroy Social Security and the Legacy of the New Deal, which will be published by PoliPoint Press this month.

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