Bush’s Failure: Losing the Debate

Bush Library Claims That His “Proposals Created A Public Debate That Raised Awareness Of The Problems Facing Social Security And How To Solve Them.” The following photograph is from the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum:

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[George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum Display, photo taken May 3-4, 2013]

Botched Politics: Bush Failed To Win Over Democrats, Republicans, Or The Public

Bush’s Attempt To Partially Privatize Social Security Died Because He “Overestimated His Post-Election Capital And Underestimated His Opposition.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “Through two campaigns, George W. Bush vowed to fix and partially privatize Social Security, the nation’s most popular government program. This year, claiming a re-election mandate and enjoying a Congress controlled by his party, the president finally made his move. Yet now even the president has acknowledged Social Security is dead for this year, his biggest domestic defeat to date. How could it have gone so wrong? According to people on both sides of the battle over Social Security, Mr. Bush overestimated his postelection capital and underestimated his opposition.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/20/05]

Re-Election Did Not Give Bush “A Popular Mandate To Proceed Boldly On Social Security, About Which He Had Talked In Only General Terms.” According to a report by Brookings Institution Senior Fellow William A. Galson, “The simplest explanation is that President Bush overestimated the amount of political capital he had banked. After all, he had prevailed by the smallest popular vote margin of any president reelected in the 20th century. And there was evidence that the campaign’s bitter, divisive tone had taken its toll. As President Bush’s second term began, he enjoyed the lowest approval rating—just 50 percent–of any just-reelected president since modern polling began. That was 9 points lower than Clinton and Nixon, 12 points lower than Reagan, and 21 points lower than Johnson—hardly the foundation for crushing a united opposition. Nor finally, had the 2004 campaign given the president a popular mandate to proceed boldly on Social Security, about which he had talked in only general terms. A December 2004 survey found that support for private accounts fell by nearly half—from 42 to 23 percent—if the introduction of these accounts meant a reduction in the guaranteed benefit.” [Brookings.edu, September 2007]

Bush “Launched His Proposal From The White House Without Adequate Congressional Consultation.” According to a report by Brookings Institution Senior Fellow William A. Galston, “The way in which President Bush proceeded early on exacerbated the difficulty. Repeating the mistake that helped doom the Clinton health insurance plan, he launched his proposal from the White House without adequate congressional consultation. In so doing, he missed what might have been an opportunity to bring a handful of ‘New Democrats’ into the fold, and he failed to allay the misgivings of his own party’s leadership. The initiative thus violated the first law of politics: unify your friends while dividing your foes. The President’s proposal did just the opposite.” [Brookings.edu, September 2007]

GOP Senator: Bush “Didn’t Lay The Political Groundwork” For Congress To Pass Social Security Overhaul. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Nearly a year ago, the president surprised friends and foes by a pronouncement at his first postelection news conference. ‘We’ll start on Social Security now,’ he said. […] Yet many Congressional Republicans had hoped he would push tax overhaul instead. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a key Republican advocate of private accounts, despaired. Mr. Bush ‘jumped out with a very big idea that he ran on, but he didn’t lay the political groundwork in the Senate or the House,’ Mr. Graham recalls. ‘He ran on it. We didn’t. He’s not up for election again. We are.’” [Wall Street Journal, 10/20/05]

Bush Tried To Sell Democrats On “Bipartisan” Plan To Create Private Accounts Based On Findings Of 2001 Commission. According to the Wall Street Journal, “In early December, the president invited both parties’ congressional leaders — 16 lawmakers, with staff — to the White House. The real talks presumably would come later, with fewer people, in private. But this meeting didn’t go well. There would be no others. Mr. Bush said he hoped to work with them on a bipartisan solution. But the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, New York Rep. Charles Rangel, said Democrats wouldn’t discuss a solution to Social Security’s looming financial woes as long as private accounts were on the table. Mr. Bush objected and said his 2001 commission had recommended such accounts, according to several participants. ‘It wasn’t a real commission,’ replied Montana Sen. Max Baucus. Mr. Bush had named only pro-accounts people to his panel.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/20/05]

Bush’s Attempt To Create Public Pressure On Centrist Democrats Instead Of Engaging Them Personally Was “Viewed Widely As A Big Blunder.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “The day after he officially presented his Social Security proposal in the State of the Union address Feb. 2, the president set off on a two-day trip to begin rallying public support. But his itinerary — North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida — had an underlying message aimed at another audience: Senate Democrats from ‘red’ states that had backed Mr. Bush for president. Today that kickoff is viewed widely as a big blunder. Instead of privately wooing centrist Democrats whose support he badly needed, Mr. Bush appealed straight to their red-state constituents. That only stoked the enmity left by his 2002 and 2004 campaigning against moderate Democrats who had backed much of his first-term agenda.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/20/05]

Sen. Ben Nelson: “If I Was Being Negotiated With, I Didn’t Know It.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “When Mr. Bush got to Omaha, Neb., waiting was Sen. Ben Nelson, perhaps his most reliable Democratic ally in the first term; the senator had been told of the event by a Nebraska Republican. Before 11,000 people, Mr. Bush called Mr. Nelson a Democrat ‘who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what’s right for America.’ In the limousine afterward, Mr. Nelson said he, Mr. Bush and several others mostly gabbed about University of Nebraska football, and the president agreed to quit calling him ‘Nellie’ and to call him ‘Benator’ instead. The president hasn’t talked to Mr. Nelson since. Mr. Hubbard visited several times, Mr. Nelson says, but ‘if I was being negotiated with, I didn’t know it.’” [Wall Street Journal, 10/20/05]

“Republicans Were Hopelessly Divided.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “A bigger problem for the president was his own party. Republicans were hopelessly divided. Mr. Bush led the so-called pain caucus, which favored both private accounts and, to keep Social Security solvent, future benefit reductions. ‘Free lunch’ conservatives wanted larger private accounts, and deeper borrowing to cover the multitrillion-dollar costs for creating them, and they opposed any benefit reductions or payroll-tax increases. Some moderate Republicans opposed private accounts altogether. Then there was the do-nothing camp, which included most House leaders, worried about losing their majority.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/20/05]

Bush Administration’s Outreach To AARP Backfired. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Support from the 36-million-member AARP had been crucial to Mr. Bush’s 2003 achievement of a Medicare law adding prescription-drug benefits. The White House thought it had the group’s agreement to a similar alliance on Social Security. In late 2003, AARP had agreed to join administration appointees from the Social Security Administration in public forums about the program’s problems as the retiree population grows, according to Bill Novelli, AARP’s chief executive. But when the White House tried to add a business group favoring private accounts, AARP pulled out. Days after Mr. Bush’s inauguration, the dispute exploded. At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel near the White House, Mr. Novelli and policy director John Rother unveiled plans to denounce the accounts in AARP’s costliest-ever campaign of media ads and grass-roots activities.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/20/05]

AARP CEO : “We Are Dead Set Against Carving Private Accounts Out Of Social Security Taxes,” Which Would Result In “Dismantling” The Program.” According to USA Today, “The nation’s largest seniors’ lobby will oppose any proposal that takes tax money out of Social Security to create private investment accounts for today’s workers, the head of AARP said Monday. That puts the group on a collision course with President Bush and Republicans in Congress. AARP has already unleashed an advertising campaign against Bush’s expected proposal. The comments by William Novelli appear to slam the door on overtures from GOP congressional leaders, who hoped the seniors’ group might support a compromise plan that includes private accounts. […] ‘We are dead set against carving private accounts out of Social Security taxes,’ he said. ‘We can fix Social Security without dismantling it, which is what private accounts carved out of Social Security do.’” [USA Today, 1/24/05]

Bush’s Plan Became More Unpopular As The Public Learned More About It. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “President George W. Bush is losing ground with the public in his efforts to build support for private retirement accounts in Social Security. Despite Bush’s intensive campaign to promote the idea, the percentage of Americans who say they favor private accounts has tumbled to 46% in Pew’s latest nationwide survey, down from 54% in December and 58% in September. Support has declined as the public has become increasingly aware of the president’s plan. More than four-in-ten (43%) say they have heard a lot about the proposal, nearly double the number who said that in December (23%).” [People-Press.org, 3/2/05]

March 2005: Less Than 30 Percent Of Americans Supported Bush’s Handling Of Social Security. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “The new poll indicates that the Social Security debate is packing a powerful political punch. It finds that just 29% of Americans approve of the way that Bush is handling the issue. This is the president’s lowest approval rating for any policy area, and is considerably lower than his overall job approval rating of 46%. Moreover, by a 65%-25% margin, most say the president has not explained his Social Security proposal clearly enough.” [People-Press.org, 3/2/05]

“Influential Republican” In Congress Accused Bush Of Having “Tin Ear” On Social Security: “We Could Not Have A Worse Message At A Worse Time.” According to the Washington Post, “ In recent meetings, House Republicans have discussed putting more pressure on the White House to move beyond Social Security and talk up different issues, such as health care and tax reform, according to Republican officials who asked not to be named to avoid angering Bush’s team. ‘There is a growing sense of frustration with the president and the White House, quite frankly,’ said an influential Republican member of Congress. ‘The term I hear most often is ‘tin ear,’’ especially when it comes to pushing Social Security so aggressively at a time when the public is worried more about jobs and gasoline prices. ‘We could not have a worse message at a worse time.’” [Washington Post, 5/31/05]

“A Clear Majority Of The Public” Did Not Believe Bush’s Social Security Rhetoric. According to the Washington Post, “President Bush yesterday said his plan to restructure Social Security would improve the program’s long-term stability without shrinking the retirement income of older Americans. But a new Washington Post-ABC News survey found a clear majority of the public does not believe that. The poll found that 56 percent said the president’s plan to couple new personal retirement accounts with a reduction in guaranteed benefits for most Americans would cut the overall retirement income of seniors. About a third — 32 percent — said Bush’s proposals would result in future retirees receiving more money. More troubling for a president who took a political risk by advocating reductions in future guaranteed benefits for all but the poorest Americans is that an even larger majority said the Bush plan would not fix the system’s financial problems. More than six in 10 — 63 percent — said the proposals would not improve the long-term financial stability of the Social Security system, while 32 percent said it would.” [Washington Post, 6/9/05]