Commentary; Down this road before
SAN DIEGO -- Just when you thought the health care debate couldn't get any more bizarre, it surpasses expectations.
Now a Republican senator is drawing parallels with the debate over Social Security reform during the George W. Bush administration and warning a Democratic president to avoid the mistakes of his GOP predecessor.
You read that right. The new argument from Republican opponents of health care reform has a cannibalistic quality to it. The strategy is to draw similarities between how President Bush, back in 2005, stubbornly pushed unpopular private saving accounts to keep Social Security afloat and how President Obama is stubbornly pushing an unpopular health care bill that some fear could sink the U.S. economy.
During an interview on ABC News' "This Week," Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee insisted that Obama was overreaching and repeating Bush's mistakes.
"I was thinking this morning of ... when (Bush) tried so hard to have private accounts for Social Security," Alexander said. "He thought he was right. He pushed, he pushed, and he pushed. If he'd stopped about halfway through and shifted, he could have probably gotten a bipartisan agreement on Social Security."
Obama would be wise to learn a lesson from that notable Bush setback, Alexander suggested.
Perhaps this is true. But, let's make sure it's the right lesson. And while there are parts of the Social Security debate that represent a cautionary tale for Obama, there are also other pieces that pose a warning to Republicans.
The Social Security reform debate fizzled for at least three reasons.
First, despite how Alexander recalls it, Bush didn't do enough to push the idea that Social Security will soon be awash in red ink and that Congress has to act now to maintain the solvency of America's most beloved entitlement program. The Bush administration was slow to produce its ideas for reform -- among them, a plan to allow Americans to use private savings accounts to invest in the stock market a portion of the taxes that they pay into Social Security. And, once that controversial idea was out there, administration officials did little to defend it. Worse, there were other more reasonable ideas that never got a full hearing, such as raising the retirement age.
Second, Republican lawmakers lost their nerve for making radical changes to the Social Security system. In fact, they seemed to be hoping the whole debate would go away. That reaction wasn't exactly a total surprise given how protective many voters -- especially seniors -- are about Social Security. Incidentally, seniors also oppose health care reform by the widest margins of any age group. The so-called Gray Panthers vote in large numbers and carry a disproportionate amount of weight in politics. Battling this demographic was not something Republicans wanted to do a few years ago. And now this group is causing just as much trouble for Democrats.
And third, Bush administration officials didn't seem to understand just how risky their reform ideas sounded to most Americans. In the same way that Obama is asking us to trust the federal government with 17 percent of the U.S. economy, Bush was asking us to trust the stock market with a portion of their retirement funds and Social Security checks. For many people, this was too much of a crapshoot. And for many people today, the Obama health care plan is just as scary. People look to government to decrease their daily level of risk -- by, for instance, keeping them safe from hazardous consumer goods or acts of terrorism -- not increase it.
Speaking of risk, after the stock market crash in 2008, it was clear the country had dodged a bullet when the idea of privatizing Social Security in order to preserve it faded away.
Alexander has a point. Obama would be wise not to push health care reform too far to the left when there may still be a consensus to be found somewhere in the center on some of the safer and less contentious aspects of the issue.
But there's another side to that coin. Yes, Democrats should avoid the mistakes that Republicans made in the Social Security debate. But Republicans have already repeated some of the mistakes committed by Democrats in that debate -- denying the scope of the problem, failing to come up with practical ideas that can win bipartisan support, demonizing opponents, etc.
Republicans are quickly becoming as irrelevant to the health care debate as Democrats were to the debate over reforming Social Security. Not an enviable place to be.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.