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The Idealists Leading The Cynics

There are, for me, two great mysteries surrounding the push for Social Security privatization. One -- why was an administration that's as rankly cynical as this one interested in pushing for something that so clearly stood a huge risk of blowing up in its face? Two -- relatedly, what accounts for the persistence of the belief in some quarters that broadening the base of stock ownership will create more Republicans? Julian Sanchez has a post that touches on both of these issues:

Our usual cynical narrative about politics has it that folks offer all sorts of public-spirited sounding reasons to support policy that they actually favor for cynical, self-interested reasons—campaign finance regulation, say, which tends to protect incumbents. Could Social Security reform be an instance of the reverse? That is: Since the public policy reasons to fix [MY: i.e., destroy] the system have to do with long term problems not particularly pressing for folks whose time horizon only extends to the next election cycle, the "creating Republicans" argument was crafted by ideologues to appeal to their more pragmatic colleagues, a fake cynical argument for an actually idealistic position? It's a superstructure laid on a base laid on a superstructure... a fun idea even if false.
I think that's about right, but the more interesting issue in some ways is why there was such a market niche for these ideas. After the debacle of 82-83, your pragmatic Republicans don't want to touch Social Security. But you do have these ideologues who think privatization is nifty. They eventually start getting funding from various interested parties on Wall Street, and are able to gin up a kind of faux cynical reason why the GOP should take up their cause. It doesn't really pick up steam until years later, however. What changes, I think, is that conservatives increasingly realize that their ideology isn't working. The '95 budget showdown demonstrates that there's no real constituency for small government as a philosophy. The '96 campaign shows that the old supply-side tax cut gospel doesn't sell all that well anymore. Bush needs to run in 2000 as a stealth conservative. He says he's a different kind of Republican. He's "compassionate." He promises a big tax cut, of course, but explicitly ties this to the (bogus) notion that the budget surplus can cover the cost. No cuts, no small government.

In office the GOP gets its huge tax cuts, but the government keeps getting bigger. Much bigger. Farm subsidies. New education spending. The prescription drug bill. The basic scam here -- guns, butter, and tax cuts -- clearly can't be viable over the long haul. It's simply inconsistent. And conservatives have no real idea of how to make their ideas compelling to people. They've learned a lot of tricks for trying to hide the nature of their ideas from the American public, but they're further than ever from coming up with a way to actually sell small government as a concept. Under the circumstances, even a dubious theory like the "investor class" can start to seem appealing. It addresses a real psychological need. Rather than convincing more people to become conservatives, the magic of stock ownership will just manufacture the missing small government constituency.

March 16, 2005 | Permalink

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"why was an administration that's as rankly cynical as this one interested in pushing for something that so clearly stood a huge risk of blowing up in its face?"

Two factors:

1) The administration doesn't have to face the voters in 2006.
2) Hubris

Along the lines of the hubris rationale, it's worth remembering that the administration shows all the signs of the classic bully. They are good at winning fights against weaker enemies, but have no clue how to deal with a stronger or evenly matched enemy.

Rove cut his teeth beating up on Southern Democrats. The administration is good at beating up on Democrats over national security or Saddam's uniformed army. They're not as good in fighting the Democrats over Social Security or the Iraqi insurgency.

And when a bully falls victim to hubris, he's likely to pick the wrong fights.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 16, 2005 4:14:12 PM

And conservatives have no real idea of how to make their ideas compelling to people. They've learned a lot of tricks for trying to hide the nature of their ideas from the American public, but they're further than ever from coming up with a way to actually sell small government as a concept.

Reminds me quite a bit of the political scene at Harvard, where Ross Douthat and especially the wacky gang at the Harvard Salient had all these principled arguments about natural law and Aristotelian logic backing up their positions. It was pretty easy to laugh at these people, because you knew that Joe Sixpack would be left scratching his head at the stuff. It was the slick hacks-in-training runnin Harvard Republican Club that you had to watch out for, as they'd learned from their party that you don't need to have any principles to stay in power, as long as you have a compelling image.

Posted by: BW | Mar 16, 2005 4:18:37 PM

why was an administration that's as rankly cynical as this one interested in pushing for something that so clearly stood a huge risk of blowing up in its face?

Same reason as it did Iraq. Bush is committed to going after big goals, not just staying in a Clinton-like holding pattern.

Posted by: Al | Mar 16, 2005 4:20:46 PM

Bush is committed to going after big goals

so true, and record deficits are his mandate. i have no doubt he'll break all records for fiscal irresponsibility.

Posted by: cleek | Mar 16, 2005 4:23:32 PM

"Same reason as it did Iraq."

I didn't know Social Security tried to whack his daddy.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 16, 2005 4:24:46 PM

Can some point me to the link about GWB expressing his dislike of Social Security when at Harvard Business School, or similar time frame?

I think Al has a point. GWB has a very dangerous and deluded sense of his grandeur, probably bred from a sense of inadequacy.
Additionally, though, some time in the next four years, the repo man is coming. Bush is basically the CEO who has been dipping into the Pension fund to pad the bottom line, and they need to figure out a way to say that it really wasn't the pension fund's money anyway.
Republicans most likely will be faced with the tough decisions that they have been pushing on down the road since Bush came into office. Of course, this makes the Medicare prescription fiasco inexplicable, or just an administration of policy incompetents.

Posted by: theCoach | Mar 16, 2005 4:34:23 PM

"Can some point me to the link about GWB expressing his dislike of Social Security when at Harvard Business School, or similar time frame?"

It's a bit later in time, but in his run for Congress in '78, he ran against Social Security, saying it would be bankrupt and unsustainable within 10 years.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 16, 2005 4:38:33 PM

Can some point me to the link about GWB expressing his dislike of Social Security when at Harvard Business School, or similar time frame?

google "Bush 1978 Social Security"

he's been a privateer since at least the late 70s

Posted by: cleek | Mar 16, 2005 4:39:42 PM

"The '95 budget showdown demonstrates that there's no real constituency for small government as a philosophy."

For the philosophy, no. For the consequences, IF they're good, yes. The problem is that any positive consequences take time to appear, and the "Shut the Washington Monument" ploy is terrifyingly effective; The party that holds the executive branch can simply make sure to maximize the pain of the shutdown, instead of minimizing it, as Clinton did.

The Republican strategy in '95 was to hang tough, in the hope that eventually most people would begin to notice that, despite all the hysterical headlines, the government shutdown wasn't really effecting their day to day lives. It might have worked, (I recall polls were starting to turn around towards the end.) if they'd just had the foresight to cement Bob Dole away in a hole somewhere, so that he couldn't sneak back into town and betray them.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 16, 2005 4:42:16 PM

-A priori.

(Said like Huntz Hall as a prelude to "Your mother wears army boots")

That's the conservative's real problem. They've got all these notions that jes gotta be true. Except that's just a pose for the rubes.

Some bozos have forgotten that these ideas were worked up as covers for the age old Republican mojo: mo' money and that trotted out into the real world by themselves they're as arable as a parking lot.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis | Mar 16, 2005 5:00:57 PM

why was an administration that's as rankly cynical as this one interested in pushing for something that so clearly stood a huge risk of blowing up in its face?

Hubris is it. After failing to heed warnings about bin Laden in 8/01, Bush flat out lied to the country about WMD's in Iraq. The NYT documented that the administration was told that the aluminum tubes, the ONLY tangible evidence EVER cited as a reason for attacking Iraq, were NOT usable as centrifuges, and they lied and said they were. Getting away with this gave them an inflated sense of their power to spin anything any way they wanted.

Unfortunately for his legacy, historians will spend the rest of his lifetime uncovering one lie after the other. Worst president in our lifetimes by a long shot.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 16, 2005 5:33:34 PM

Brett,
You're delusional. The reason small-government conservatism lost its foothold with the American voting public is because Clinton signed welfare reform, period. Before that point a very large segment of the American electorate truly believed that a significant portion of their tax dollars were going to support some lazy black woman someplace. After welfare reform that myth simply dried up and people started to realize that they like government. The true believers (like yourself) always took small-government conservatism more seriously, which is why you react with outrage at expansions in Medicare and the like. But the Republican Party abandoned small-government conservatism in 1996 because they knew it would be a perpetual loser. They were the governing party in Congress and they weren't about to cut local pork. Also, race suddenly dropped out of the picture as a front-and-center selling point. I'll never forget my shock at seeing so many black faces at the 1996 RNC. The tone of that convention was 180 degrees different than the fire and brimstone 1992 affair, and it was the sign of a critical strategic shift in Republican thinking. Bush in 2000 only furthered that strategy with all his talk of compassion, and his agenda of a much larger Federal role in education. The problem with all this, of course, is that it's unsustainable. The Republicans still want tax cuts but they don't really want to cut government anymore. So they just borrow and spend. Eventually another Ross Perot is going to come along and shake America back to reality - let's hope it's not a nut like Ross Perot himself. If Democrats are smart, they will produce that person.

Posted by: Elrod | Mar 16, 2005 5:35:06 PM

"But the Republican Party abandoned small-government conservatism in 1996 because they knew it would be a perpetual loser."

Who's denying that? Indeed, it's true, as somebody or other once said, that "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury..."

The difference is that you greet this truth with joy, and I greet it with despair.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 16, 2005 6:17:56 PM

Indeed, it's true, as somebody or other once said, that "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. ... blah blah blah...

229 years and counting.

Incidentaly, here's the full quote:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess of the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. -- Sir Alexander Fraser Tyler

Hope the Iraqis don't get word of this.

Posted by: WillieStyle | Mar 16, 2005 6:26:40 PM

Nah, the voting largess from the public treasury bit only really got started in a big way sixty or seventy years ago. We've got a couple of decades at least before the collapse.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 16, 2005 6:33:43 PM

It's not about hubris; they just really want to get at the SS trust fund. With Repubs, it's always about money.

Posted by: Tim H. | Mar 16, 2005 6:50:34 PM

Two -- relatedly, what accounts for the persistence of the belief in some quarters that broadening the base of stock ownership will create more Republicans?

I've answered the first question above. The second question is answerable by reference to this article:

Investors for Bush
How Social Security reform can bring about a Republican realignment.

BY JOHN ZOGBY
Tuesday, March 15, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

"[...] But there is a much bigger picture. The president's real prize would be a significant realignment in party politics. It has been no secret that Mr. Bush and Karl Rove have their sights set on a political realignment not experienced since FDR built a coalition of urban ethnics, liberal ideologues and Southern conservatives under the Democrats' big tent. Like the New Deal, the president's "ownership society" is a compelling new vision and veritable redefinition of a society less dependent on government largess, of a middle class more independent and more capable of securing financial security on its own.

This stunning realignment is possible by virtue of a new class of American voters--the self-identified "investor class"--which is itself a coalition across a broad spectrum of demographic groups. [...]"

http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110006425

Look at the chart in the linked story: in 2004, investors voted for Bush by a margin of 61-39, noninvestors went for Kerry by 57-42. Hence, the idea to increase the percentage of investors.

Now, of course, Zogby is an one of the worst pollsters out there, and his polls are inevitable screwed up. But even he couldn't screw up the general jist of this: more investors means more Republicans.

Posted by: Al | Mar 16, 2005 6:55:28 PM

"Worst president in our lifetimes by a long shot."

Yes, and possibly even the worst in anybody's lifetime. Ever.

I can't imagine a serious historian wanting to waste his or her time trying to figure out all the sins of this jackass.

Posted by: Blue Iris | Mar 16, 2005 7:06:16 PM

The Republican strategy in '95 was to hang tough, in the hope that eventually most people would begin to notice that, despite all the hysterical headlines, the government shutdown wasn't really effecting their day to day lives.

I don't think that people were concerned about the government shut down per se. As long as Social Security checks and US Mail arrived, the general voting populace felt fine about the gov't shutdown. The "word on the street" was all about how, "wow, it's funny how when the 'government shuts down' we still all get along fine." The problem, in the public's mind, was Republican intrasignance and the portrayal of Gingrich as a loathsome character thowing a temper tantrum with a popular president.

Posted by: Constantine | Mar 16, 2005 7:16:09 PM

How about this scenario? We are currently in fiscal meltdown, soon to result in visible problems to the average American via the devaluation of the dollar, resulting in higher prices (and much higher energy prices), higher interest rates, a palpably lower standard of living.

What to do about this? Raise taxes to where they were under Clinton? Nah. Instead, set things up so the fiscal problem can be blamed on entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, etc. Force cuts in these programs under emergency conditions. Then blame Democrats for failing to address these issues in a timely fashion.

But maybe that's paranoid.

Enjoy Bellmore's position. Yep, the past 60-70 years of feeding at the trough have truly been a disaster for America, haven't they? I'm reminded of when I first heard Reagan saying, "Look what 40 years of tax and tax, spend and spend, have done to America." I looked around and thought, wow, pretty good! Let's have 40 more years!

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Mar 16, 2005 8:16:29 PM

Yup, passing the 10th floor, in free fall, wind in our hair... Everything's great! What's this talk about eventually reaching the ground?

You don't suppose this has anything at all to do with how rarely we ballance the budget? Increasing trade deficits? Low saving rates?

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 16, 2005 8:43:35 PM

Brett,

You don't suppose this has anything all to do with the Bush tax cuts? A Medicare prescription drug plan that gives Big Pharma hundreds of billions of dollars beyond what is necessary by prohibiting the federal government from negotiating for best price like the VA can do?

Posted by: Petey | Mar 16, 2005 9:01:06 PM

You're missing the forest for the trees, Petey. You think Bush would be doing all that if the public WANTED fiscal rectitude?

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 16, 2005 9:31:09 PM

"You're missing the forest for the trees, Petey. You think Bush would be doing all that if the public WANTED fiscal rectitude?"

Why do you think Clinton had such high approval ratings? The public knew he was watching out for their interests, fiscal rectitude included.

The public doesn't want someone who'll balance the budget on the backs of the poor or the middle class. Balancing it on the backs of the wealthiest, on the other hand, isn't unpopular.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 16, 2005 9:36:58 PM

I think that's making it way too complicated. The Repubs hate SS for some pretty obvious reasons. (Bush is on record as despising it for decades before now.) (1) Ideological: SS is the ultimate proof in this country that government can help people. Repubs don't want people expecting anything positive from the government. (See Mark Schmidtt.) (2) Political: SS is attributed to the Dems, and is a huge positive for us. Taking it away furthers the cause of destroying the Dems. (3) Political: The Repubs' big donors in the financial industry are just dying to get their paws on all that SS money. (See the Cunning Realist for some astoundingly cynical commentary on this.) (4) Financial: Gutting SS prior to the boomers retiring lessens the need for huge tax increases. And, as suggested in some of the other comments above, I think hubris played a role; they'd been successful at selling all their other big initiatives, so they thought they could do this one too. They forgot that this is the first one where they were trying to do something the public detests, and that (much more so than the Dems' resistance) is why they're failing. But they will be back, guaranteed, because it's so attractive to them, and they won't stop until they've succeeded in gutting the program. These guys play for the long haul, and the Dems better not forget that.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | Mar 16, 2005 10:37:23 PM

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