Not to belabor the obvious, but chances are very slim that Social Security reform will happen this year. While there are many reasons, they all boil down to one basic fact: there are not enough votes in the U.S. Senate to overcome a filibuster. So what should President Bush do?
The simple answer is keep the process going forward. Continue pushing Social Security reform in both the press and in stops around the nation. Prepare to make it an issue in the 2006 election. And ensure that legislation advances in Congress.
It is this last step that is crucial, for it will shape how Bush can use the issue in next year’s election. Most importantly, he must make certain that reform legislation passes the House. This cannot be emphasized enough. A loss in the House and Bush will appear as though he no longer has any clout, even over his own party. It will reinforce all the media stories about GOP legislators “running scared” from Social Security reform. In turn, Bush will have an even harder time getting his reform message out. The media will hardly cover it other than to note, “Bush’s plan seems dead after the House, controlled by his own party, voted it down.” Thus, it is imperative that the White House round up 218 votes in the House.
Bush can take steps toward that goal now. The House Ways and Means Committee has two hearings scheduled on Social Security reform this week, while the Senate has one. Bush should talk up these hearings with reporters and make it part of the next weekly radio address. In particular, Bush should mention some of the ideas coming out of the hearing that he liked, and how pleased he is that Congress is making progress on this issue. Never too soon to grease the wheels.
A second reason Bush must prevail in the House is that if he does not, he will have no message to carry to the voters in 2006. The message that he wants is, “We can have Social Security reform; all that is standing in the way are the Democratic obstructionists in the Senate.” Tying the blockage of Social Security reform to Democratic obstructionism is essential if Bush wants to turn this issue to the GOP’s advantage.
The Democrats’ obstructionist tactics are unpopular with the public. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll revealed that by 38 to 30 percent respondents opposed the Democrats’ efforts to thwart President Bush’s judicial nominees. Voters showed their displeasure with such tactics last fall by giving Tom Daschle a new job as a lobbyist.
Bush must ensure that reform legislation lands in the Senate where the Democrats are sure to block it. When that happens, Bush can use the obstructionist charge against Democrats in the next election. He can neutralize the advantage that Democrats currently enjoy in the polls on Social Security, and give the GOP more confidence as it moves into 2006. It might even help him pick up Senate seats in Florida, Michigan, and Nebraska, bringing the GOP total in the Senate to 58 and thus very close to what is needed to break a filibuster.
Bush may not be able to salvage Social Security reform this year. However, he can turn it into a winner in the 2006 elections, thereby improving its chances in the future. The first step in achieving that is getting reform through the House.
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