George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, the centerpiece of his second-term agenda, is dead. Conservative pundit William Kristol argues that this Bush defeat began the unraveling of his presidency: “The negative effect of the Social Security [campaign] is underestimated,” says Kristol. “Once you make that kind of mistake, people tend to be less deferential to your decisions.” There was an “entire Republican agenda, based on the idea that we reform these entitlement programs,” says New York Times columnist David Brooks. “That’s gone now because of the failure of Social Security.” A remarkable progressive mobilization caused Bush’s defeat–and progressives can learn much from the anatomy of that victory.
For Bush, privatization seemed within reach. He was building on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar conservative campaign that had already convinced influential pundits that Social Security was in trouble and needed reform. Conservative groups pledged to spend more than $50 million on outside ad campaigns. Bush’s plan was designed to reassure seniors and those nearing retirement that their benefits wouldn’t be touched. It appealed to younger workers by offering the chance of getting rich in the stock market. And the President didn’t need overwhelming public support; with House Republican discipline assured, Bush had only to convince five Democratic senators up for re-election in red states to oppose a filibuster. After making Social Security privatization a focal point of his 2005 State of the Union address, Bush quickly visited five of those states to send nervous senators a message.
Bush was defeated because he was challenged from day one by a sophisticated progressive mobilization, spearheaded by the Campaign for America’s Future. CAF had begun warning about the right’s privatization campaign in 1998, when it mobilized a coalition to challenge President Clinton’s flirtation with private accounts, and it took the lead in challenging Bush’s Social Security Commission in his first term. So when Bush announced that Social Security “reform” was a top priority, CAF went into action. It used its election day polling to show that Bush had no mandate for privatization. Joining the AFL-CIO, MoveOn.org and USAction, it held press conferences in each of the states Bush visited, detailing the costs to citizens of privatization.
Under the leadership of Gerald McEntee of AFSCME, unions joined CAF, USAction and MoveOn.org to create a war room and coalition of more than 200 groups under the banner of Americans United to Protect Social Security. When Bush launched his Social Security tour, AUPSS was there. No speech or statement went unopposed. AFSCME and the AFL-CIO helped with union fundraising, without which the campaign would have floundered. AARP, the giant retirement conglomerate, chipped in with an independent multimillion-dollar ad campaign.
These efforts were buoyed by Democratic House and Senate leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who resisted demands by pundits and New Democrats like Rahm Emanuel and Gene Sperling that the Democrats come up with their own plan. Pelosi and Reid made the wise strategic decision to keep the focus on Bush’s plan. The more Bush traveled and spoke about it, the less people liked it and the more they began to question his judgment and priorities. Democrats learned the value of a unified no.
Republican unity began to crumble. CAF bought an ad in the hometown paper of Louisiana Representative Jim McCrery, Republican chair of the subcommittee in charge of Social Security reform, revealing that he had received hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions from Wall Street firms that would profit from privatization. The Shreveport Times embraced the CAF argument in an editorial chastising McCrery. Republicans started to get nervous. Senator Lindsey Graham, a vocal supporter of private accounts, realized the problem: Bush “ran on it. We didn’t. He’s not up for election again. We are.”
When Hurricane Katrina struck, Bush surrendered, but his plan was already dead by then. The Social Security defeat shattered GOP unity long before the indictment of Tom DeLay and the public’s sharp turn against the Iraq War. It defined core differences between Democrats and the Republican majority. And it demonstrated the power of an organized progressive mobilization that informs citizens and arouses their opposition.