As the vague outlines of President Bush's Social Security privatization plan rise up in the mist ahead of us, a question naturally comes to mind: What did Democrats do the last time a conservative Republican president proposed massive changes to Social Security? That is, how did they fight back against Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s?
The answer, though, is sadly unhelpful. The Social Security debate of 1981-83 shows only one thing: The world sure was different back then.
If you follow politics, you're probably familiar with the idea that reform sometimes backfires. You've probably heard the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform cited as an example of such unintended consequences. Critics say McCain-Feingold eliminated the one form of political money on which Democrats had an advantage, while increasing the kind of money -- contributions from individuals -- on which the Republicans had the edge, without actually stemming the flow of large contributions.
Now that millions of words have been devoted to assessing the mixed
legacy of Ronald Reagan's presidency, let's take a few hundred to recall
one of the attempts by liberals to respond and counter Reagan and his
strategies. Since his anti-government philosophy is as alive as Reagan
is dead, these responses are also still very much in play.
Like the dream of immortality, the vision of political power that outlasts the eight years of a single presidency can be an irresistible lure to politicians. One version of the dream involves electoral power. For example, Karl Rove is said to have a plan for the Republican Party to dominate for 30 or 40 years, much as it did after the election of William McKinley in 1896, which helped break a period of partisan deadlock. The other version of the dream involves structuring policies and statutes that will protect themselves against democratic change, conditions that a future majority cannot break.
American liberals suffer from a well-earned inferiority complex. How often do we hear phrases like, “We need a Heritage Foundation for our side,” or, “We need ideas and a framework, like the right has”? Robert B. Reich has put forth the most comprehensive such argument in the May issue of the English magazine Prospect: “The radical conservatives have a movement, which explains their success … they have frames of reference used in the policy debates … and they have developed a coherent ideology… Democrats have built no analogous movement.”