April 27, 2005

Of Road Shows and the Boom's Echo

It's hard not to notice that after campaigning for well over a year, President Bush almost immediately started campaigning again. Last year at this time he was campaigning for reelection; now he's campaigning for changes in Social Security.

There's an explanation for this, hidden in such plain sight that it's a wonder so few people have commented on it. We'll come to that in a moment. A few points first:

I come to this subject with a bias in favor of private investment accounts, the President's signature cause, in principle. I don't see ownership of such accounts as in any way transformative of society -- as a conservative transforming society really isn't my thing anyway -- but private accounts could be one way to increase saving, and based on the American economy's performance over a long period of time the promised higher rates of return (relative to what Social Security offers now) private accounts would offer seem like a pretty good bet.

But they are still a bet, and the rule for betting is not to stake any money you can't afford to lose. So for me the critical question is how transition costs -- the expense of setting up private accounts so that benefits to current retirees can still be paid -- are handled. During the late 1990s' boom and, critically, during the 2000 campaign season it briefly looked as if transition costs could be paid for out of projected federal budget surpluses. This was certainly what then-Governor Bush had in mind during the 2000 campaign. A recession, major tax cuts and two wars having intervened, those projected surpluses are now very large deficits. And that, as far as I'm concerned, is that. Don't fight the problem, as General Marshall liked to say; if you can't afford something, don't buy it.

President Bush, obviously, takes a different view. Hence this spring's Social Security campaign. Just from the standpoint of tradecraft, it is very impressive. Bush's speeches share a lot of common material, but all have abundant adaptations for individual local audiences; when he speaks to his main points he uses some of the same phrases, but rarely lapses into repeating long stretches of the same language (for examples , see the transcripts of this appearance last week in Ohio, this speech in South Carolina three days later, and this appearance in Texas yesterday). He is rigorously on-message (so are other administration officials when they make speeches on Social Security), and the White House's determination to schedule him to speak only before friendly audiences ensures that the visuals available to the media are all positive and the audience quotes as supportive as possible.

It takes no small amount of skill on Bush's part and advance work on the part of White House staff to pull this off with so few hitches. So if Bush is losing ground on the Social Security issue it isn't because his campaign isn't working. The campaign is functioning exactly as intended. It's just missing a key element, because of the nature of the issue and the way Bush has chosen to approach it.

The missing element is what in sales is called a call to action. Sales talks that never ask the audience to do anything are in the end just conversation, and this is the one big difference between Bush's campaign for reelection last year and his campaign for Social Security reform this year. You can't miss the call to action in a normal political campaign, and especially not in the ones Bush has run -- it's "vote for me." Sometimes audiences are asked to volunteer or contribute as well -- in speeches to party activists the call to action can be pretty detailed -- but no one leaves a campaign speech with any doubt as to what the speaker wants him or her to do.

This campaign is different. Bush is not asking his audiences to do anything: not to vote for candidates who support him (they won't be able to for another eighteen months), not to call Congress to support his bill (he hasn't presented one), not to do anything. His campaign to build support for private accounts in Social Security is like a car without the ignition circuits. It took a lot of skill and effort to build, but it isn't going anywhere.

So what's the point? And why is he still hammering away at the private accounts idea when the surpluses that could have funded transition costs disappeared years ago? To answer the second question first, though the boom may be over its echo has taken time to fade. Americans, and American politicians have only very gradually absorbed the idea that the last five years of the last century were the aberration, not the years before and since. The attraction of being able to just throw money at worthy ideas like prescription drugs for seniors, thousands of local projects, and the ownership society is powerful. No one wants to admit that the time for this kind of thing has come and gone.

Also, Social Security reform was part of Bush's campaign agenda back in 1999, and the items above it -- tax cuts, primary school education reform, and more tax cuts -- have pretty much all been done. Within the Republican Party, or at least that part of it represented in the administration there isn't that much left in the cupboard as far as a potentially popular domestic agenda is concerned. There are, to be sure, a number of people in the administration who favor private accounts because they really think the New Deal's time is past. These are the people who have been giving folks like Paul Krugman and Josh Marshall the vapors for the last few months. But the prominence of Social Security for Bush now likely owes more to inertia than to ideology.

What is it that the White House is really after; what is it that is hidden in plain sight? It's that President Bush really loves campaigning. He revels in the applause, delights in the banter, can't get enough of taking easy questions from adoring audience members. By contrast -- and I'm just going on appearances here -- the routine of the Oval Office bores him. Bush doesn't care much for lobbying Congress, is plainly terrified of reporters, and prefers to delegate even major policy decisions unless this absolutely cannot be avoided.

And that, I think, is the point of the Social Security campaign. It isn't Social Security. It's to get the President back on the campaign trail, doing what he likes to do.

In the interest of fairness, though, let me sound a dissonant note as well. Recent Bush speeches continue to advocate the private accounts concept, usually toward the end. Nowadays, however, he precedes this advocacy by discussing Social Security in terms at least somewhat compatible with those in which some conservatives see the program. You can argue that there is no Social Security crisis now, but there is a Social Security problem. The ratio of retirees to wage earners is increasing rapidly, and reforming the system to ensure that the future retirees who will most need Social Security benefits get them will be easier to do sooner than later.

Bush also, in the "all options are on the table" section of his speeches, list options reducing the rate of growth in benefits for future retirees. He rules out payroll tax increases -- perhaps for the wrong reasons (the consistency on taxes required in campaign politics), but in any event his position is consistent with the reality that the federal budget exclusive of Social Security is massively in deficit. Tax increases will be needed to rectify this. The Democrats will promote tax increases as the sole way to reduce the budget deficit, and fix Social Security, and pay for Medicare, and offset the revenue losses from the inevitable changes in the Alternative Minimum Tax, and if allowed to have their way will leave us with tax rates as high as some European countries.

Frankly, since the "options on the table" are none of them vote-winners I expect both Congress and the President to back away from them in the end. What is most likely to be done on Social Security this year is: nothing. But I'd be glad if this pessimistic prediction turned out to be mistaken.

Posted by at April 27, 2005 05:12 PM | TrackBack (6)

Well done. Finally starting to fill the big shoes B.D. left behind...

Posted by: EJ at April 27, 2005 06:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, he's not asking for action because that's not what he's after. He's trying to shift public opinion on Social Security, and a campaign is an appropriate tool for this. Calling for action can be added to the campaign later.

Posted by: fling93 at April 27, 2005 07:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

JEB wrote:

"what is it that is hidden in plain sight? It's that President Bush really loves campaigning. He revels in the applause, delights in the banter, can't get enough of taking easy questions from adoring audience members. By contrast -- and I'm just going on appearances here -- the routine of the Oval Office bores him. Bush doesn't care much for lobbying Congress, is plainly terrified of reporters, and prefers to delegate even major policy decisions unless this absolutely cannot be avoided."

God damn, I hadn't seen that before. It explains a hell of a lot.

JEB, I've got to know - do you have a regular blog/column/venue of some sort? You're the best blogger working today.

Posted by: Joel at April 27, 2005 08:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What is it that the White House is really after; what is it that is hidden in plain sight? It's that President Bush really loves campaigning. He revels in the applause, delights in the banter, can't get enough of taking easy questions from adoring audience members. By contrast -- and I'm just going on appearances here -- the routine of the Oval Office bores him. Bush doesn't care much for lobbying Congress, is plainly terrified of reporters, and prefers to delegate even major policy decisions unless this absolutely cannot be avoided.

Having had the same thought, I unreservedly concur with JEB's brilliant analysis. Not that JEB isn't brilliant the rest of the time, too.

Posted by: Anderson at April 27, 2005 08:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"The ratio of retirees to wage earners is increasing rapidly" Yeah, so? The ratio of government personnel to wage earners has been increasing for forty years. The ratio of prison population to wage earners is increasing to the point that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any developed country.

We have a Social Security crisis (OH! Look over there! Terrible Boomers retiring!) because there are limits to the number of dependents of all classes that the economy can support - children, infirm, prisoners, government, and retirees.

We spend $22,000 per year on each prisoner. Do we put Grandma on an ice floe so we can continue to do that? How many phoney baloney (Blazing Saddles!) government jobs do we protect at Grandma's expense?

Posted by: Fred at April 27, 2005 08:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

JEB wrote:

"He revels in the applause, delights in the banter, can't get enough of taking easy questions from adoring audience members..."

Maybe, instead of a recording contract, the winner of American Idol gets to be the president. Then they can carve the "turkey" AND entertain the troops in one trip.

Posted by: kleiner bruder at April 27, 2005 08:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Interesting thesis -- a well argued if counterintuitive point. Do you have conduct prior to this Social Security junket that supports your thesis?

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at April 27, 2005 09:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm afraid that I have a slightly different take on what Bush is doing.

The original plan was to create a sense of "crisis", then push through the privatization plan as a response to that crisis before anyone could say "wait a second! This actually makes the "crisis" worse!"

The endless "Social Security" tour (or as Josh Marshall has so aptly named it Bamboozapalooza) is really all about Bush's refusal to admit defeat/that he was wrong. The failure of the tour is not because it lacks a "call to action", but because Bush's efforts to establish a need for the action he wants to call for have been shown to be essentially dishonest. The White House realizes that any specific proposal Bush puts forward will go down in flames regardless of whether Bush does a "call to action" or not.


On the issue of "saving social security" --- the answer is actually quite simple, and doesn't require cutting benefits, raising taxes, or "burdening future generations." That solution is this:

Keep the estate tax, but dedicate its revenues to redeeming the Notes held by the Social Security Trust Fund. This will, in effect, create a "lockbox" that will ensure that all Social Security benefits will be paid as scheduled. For the next 40 odd years, America will see the Estate Tax as a necessary part of providing full benefits for social security recipients, and once the Trust Fund runs out of assets, there will be general agreement that the Estate Tax should be used to provide a direct subsidy to the Social Security System.

A few details --- The Trust Fund will continue to run a surplus until at least 2018. Once we reach that point, Estate Tax revenues will be sufficient to redeem all the notes needed to pay for benefits for at least a decade, but eventually the amount needed to be redeemed each year will exceed the revenue accrued from the Estate tax. (This is not permanent, however....although the percentage of our GDP needed to pay full benefits is expected to rise precipitously between 2010 and 2030, after 2030 the percentage stabilizes.)

We could raise estate taxes at that point....but I would suggest instead that we create an "Estate Tax Trust Fund" where all Estate Taxes collected would be "deposited", and which would be used to fund already existing government run student loan programs, mortgage programs, and the like. In other words, the Estate Tax Trust Fund would be invested not in Treasury Notes, but in loans to Americans that would be paid back with interest.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at April 28, 2005 12:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

My own opinion is that Bush is persisting in his Social Security campaign, inspite of its failure, as a way of carrying out his basic conservative philosophy.

The modern conservative movement was born out of opposition to the New Deal, and the heart of the New Deal is Social Security. Bush wants to destroy Social Security, but his problem is that the great majority of the public loves it. He is pushing on, nonetheless, because he won re-election by a narrow margin and knows that the next president might be a Democrat. Bush is desperate to do some real damage to SS while he has a chance, and so I suspect he will keep up the effort until a bill is introduced in congress and voted down.

Anybody know what is the presidential record for the quickest transition to lame-duck status?

Posted by: Les Brunswick at April 28, 2005 12:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I would like to carry your analysis a couple steps further.
First of all, I think that Bush went into office with one overriding concern---deposing Saddam.
Everything else was secondary.
Even the war on terror is not a serious concern to him; his interest in that is domestic political and no more.

Second, Cheney is even more powerful now, because Bush doesn't care; hence, he must be delighted to have Bush out of town so much, wasting time. This development is not going to help the REpublican party accomplish much, because only Bush can put the smiley face on
GOP atrocities to get them passed.

Posted by: marky at April 28, 2005 01:23 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hah - well, Britt, at least your pyschoanalysis is free. And - you appear to have a client list that would be willing to pay.

You people are a riot - you know, if you didn't exist, the right would have to manufacture you. Sleep on that.

Sweet dreams.

Posted by: Tommy G at April 28, 2005 04:04 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Tommy G: You are being somewhat unfair. Mr. Britt's post was well considered and well written; even if you disagree, you cannot claim that it is obviously false. By speaking well, he has attracted some who can only bark in support; but that does not invalidate his thesis.

Posted by: sammler at April 28, 2005 08:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Seems to me that the only possible thrust of such a thesis is that Bush is not really an effective president---that he's all style (or fluff) and no substance.

I suppose there are those who would like to think so.

For those who do, doesn't this "analysis" merely regurgitate, and reinforce, the "Bush is such an idiot" thesis (in its various and sundry permutations) that has been bouncing back and forth, up and down in certain echo chambers now for five years (and running)?

(Though some may grudgingly admit that Bush is really quite the political operator---or is it that he's merely Rove's puppet?)

Whatever. One might wish to expect a bit more (at least from some).

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 28, 2005 01:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Seems to me that the only possible thrust of such a thesis is that Bush is not really an effective president---that he's all style (or fluff) and no substance.

Bush's effectiveness as president rested solely on the myth of Bush's character was 9/11 made necessary. If you look at the pre-9/11 opinion polls, and go back and read what was happening politically prior to 9/11, it was obvious that his agenda was in big trouble very early on---despite GOP control of the House of Representatives, and a "tie" in the Senate (until Bush's arrogance and high-handedness forced Jeffords to leave the GOP.)

Its not true to say that Bush is all style and no substance --- its more accurate to say that Bush is mostly style and the wrong substance.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at April 28, 2005 03:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Bush has never been a hands-on, detail-oriented, managerial kind of guy. Tommy G. cannot name one such episode in Bush's ENTIRE LIFE. Yet TG nevertheless brings a rock to a brain fight and says that Britt must be anti-Bush.

Understanding Bush and opposing him may be linked by a cause & effect relationship, but they are logically distinct. Bush could be the kind of leader that Britt describes & still be a good president.

(I think he would have to have real morals, a little more going on upstairs, and a lot better judgment in picking his ministers, but that is another story & not part of what Britt said; Britt can, & likely does, disagree with this parenthetical.)

Posted by: Anderson at April 28, 2005 04:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, well, well - I guess we know who felt offended... Mens Rea, anyone.

'got to tell you, (14 resolutions) Andy, sometimes, after needless haggling with your brain (14 resolutions) it's time to go with the rock (OIF).

Oh, and since I missed you last week, chew on this:

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Nevada) May 08, 2004
Nevada soldiers who fixed prison 'devastated'
By Keith Rogers

'I was devastated. It was unbelievable,' said Capt. Troy Armstrong, commander of the Nevada Army National Guard's 72nd Military Police Company.

He was describing his initial reaction to the pictures of gloating MPs from the 372nd Military Police Company next to naked, kneeling and hunched-over Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, some in sexually explicit positions.

'All our soldiers know you couldn't take pictures of detainees period. And that was crystal clear,' he said.

Armstrong, his first sergeant and three other soldiers from the 72nd spoke openly about their duty at Abu Ghraib during an informal session with reporters at the Nevada National Guard Armory in Henderson.

They said they were appalled by the acts of abuse that have infuriated officials and citizens at home and abroad.

'It pisses you off,' said Spc. Douglas Fry, 26, of Las Vegas. 'It makes the 72nd look bad. The acts of a few knuckleheads makes the United States look bad.'

One of the 19 female MPs and support personnel in the company, Spc. Sandra Flores, said, 'It makes me mad because I know our MPs worked hard to keep this from happening.'

Spc. Michael Roe, 27, of Henderson said those responsible for what he called 'horrendous' acts of abuse need to be jailed themselves. 'We need to show the world we are able to police ourselves and not quote, unquote, cover it up,' he said.

Roe said that during the time he guarded detainees the only time he saw them naked was when they took showers.

'Did I ever see an Iraqi butt? Yes. Did I ever strip someone down and put a leash around their neck? No,' he said.

One photograph that shocked them appeared in newspapers Friday. It shows a woman MP from the Maryland company, identified as Spc. Lynndie England, standing with a leash attached to the neck of a naked detainee on the floor of what Armstrong said is probably the 1-A section of the prison compound.

That cell block, which he said was occasionally guarded at the door by 'one or two' of his MPs, was taken over by military intelligence units when his company of 110 soldiers turned over control of the compound on Oct. 15 to the 372nd, a combat support company twice the size of the Nevada unit.

Armstrong and 1st Sgt. Daryl Keithley said no such abuses occurred during their six-month-long watch at Abu Ghraib.

But near the end of that stint, about the time the Maryland-based 372nd arrived, some changes occurred, particularly in areas holding so-called 'security detainees,' those kept apart from the prison's general criminal population because they were suspected double agents or had intelligence value, such as knowing information about former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

'There was one incident when we were asked to keep detainees awake, to wake them up with metal drums. We said, 'Absolutely not.' I stopped them from doing it,' said Armstrong, a 37-year-old child protective services worker from Las Vegas....


Posted by: Tommy G at April 28, 2005 10:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Everybody is talking like this is a tactical issue, but it is long term strategy playing out. All Bush has to do is get Congress to vote on a plan which, in retrospect, could be seen as capable of saving Social Security. When the point comes that the crisis can no longer be denied, the career of every Democrat or RINO who voted against the plan is fini.

Posted by: triticale at May 1, 2005 12:52 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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