In a paroxysm of pleasure over the Republicans' sex-scandal-assisted suicide, Democrats have been busy closing ranks behind their President. Even as Clinton laid out a series of initiatives worthy of Ronald Reagan, including a $110 billion increase in Pentagon spending, a trade policy that steps up competition for cheap labor, and a first step toward privatizing Social Security, liberal members of his party, except for a few mavericks, applauded him. What's going on here?
"There's enormous anticipation that this fight [the scandal] is just pure political gravy for the Democrats," says Bob Borosage, a former adviser to Jesse Jackson and co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a nonprofit group with ties to organized labor and progressive Democrats. "They don't want a fight with Bill Clinton, and they don't want a fight with Al Gore. So we're not hearing about the truly big things that are at issue: Are we going to fund the military at Cold War levels? Are we going to privatize social insurance? Are we going to have a global New Deal?"
The Social Security debate is a case study of Clinton's twisted relationship with the left wing of his party.
If Clinton's welfare reform bill undermined the foundation of New Deal liberalism, his bid to "save" Social Security from insolvency and begin investing part of the program's funds in the stock market may finish the job.
Many Democrats are supporting Clinton in this effort--even though they don't believe Social Security is in any danger of going bankrupt. They publicly accept the idea of "saving" the system from a projected shortfall, because, they say, that's what the public believes must happen.
"The AFL-CIO has had polling done, and they convinced the unions and convinced me that the rightwing propaganda has been so successful, if you say there's no crisis, people won't listen to you," says Representative Jerry Nadler, a progressive Democrat from New York, who supports the President's Social Security plan.
Does that mean the Democrats are backing a plan to fix a problem that doesn't exist?
"That's exactly right," Nadler says. "The problem is illusory, but you have to act as if it's real."
Republicans favor more individual control over retirement savings--returning Social Security withholdings to taxpayers in the form of private investment accounts. The Clinton plan would retain the federal guarantee of Social Security, but would invest part of the trust fund in the stock market, and would put government matching funds into separate, individual investment accounts. It's up to Democrats and Republicans in Congress to hash out an agreement on the program's future.
Following their President's lead, progressive Democrats find themselves in a strange dance. They are embracing their opponents, keeping quiet about their concerns, and playing along on the theory that if they take the "middle path"--supporting partial privatization, while adopting the rhetoric of those who want to tear the system down--they'll wind up in a better position to save it. Or so they hope.
Nowhere was the perversity of the Democrats' position on Social Security more apparent than in a debate on January 21 in front of the House Ways and Means Committee. Jesse Jackson, former Democratic Presidential candidate, head of the Rainbow Coalition, and occasional White House spiritual adviser, squared off against Jack Kemp, former Republican Congressman from New York, President Bush's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and trickle-down economist.
The mood in the room was overwhelmingly collegial. The testimony began with football banter. Jack Kemp pointed out that both he and Jackson had been quarterbacks on their college football teams (although Kemp went on to play in the pros and Jackson didn't). "Jesse played with many of my future teammates on the Chargers and the Buffalo Bills," Kemp said. …