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. Waving his right hand, with his big, gold Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame ring, Kemp declared that he and Jackson share an "audacious faith in America."
J.D. Hayworth, Republican of Arizona, chimed in to thank the "dueling quarterbacks," and to disclose that he was once an offensive lineman. "Although in my college days it should also be noted I was recruited as right tackle but ended up left out." Jackson chuckled appreciatively at that line, and punched Kemp in the arm.
Committee Chairman Bill Archer, Republican of Texas, announced to this happy group that he had sobering news: "A nationwide, bipartisan survey ... by Oppenheimer Funds will be released today.... It shows that two-thirds of Americans under fifty believe it's more likely that a pro wrestler will be elected President than believe they'll collect all the Social Security they're entitled to," Archer said. "And half of all Americans believe a $1,000 bet on the Super Bowl will give them a better return than the taxes they pay into the Social Security system."
After this paean to the effectiveness of the mutual-fund companies' propaganda, Archer went on to propose a radical plan to dismantle Social Security, warning ominously about the "redistribution of wealth" and insisting that we not forget "what we learned from Eastern Europe"--as if the Social Security system as it exists brings us dangerously close to Communism.
He closed by praising a woman named Regina Jacobs--who spent her whole life mopping and dusting classrooms at the University of West Virginia: "Regina earned only $10,000 a year as a custodian, and yet she drives a GMC Jimmy," he said. "She also just donated $93,000 dollars to the university's law school--$93,000! How did she do that? Well, for many years, she rented a piece of property that she had inherited. And she invested her rental income along with her salary. She said, `I didn't make a lot of money but...