The February 1 broadcast of ABC's Nightline, which was devoted entirely to a discussion of the debate over Social Security, included a segment featuring conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, who purported to analyze the political terrain surrounding the issue. During the segment, which featured no progressive viewpoint, Brooks claimed that Democrats oppose President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security not because they fear such a plan would hurt living standards for retirees, but because they fear the plan will endear voters to the Republican Party.
Here's how Brooks explained Democratic opposition to Bush's plan:
BROOKS: The Democrats are all perfectly united. The Democrats all reject private accounts. They reject it, and I should say there's a political element here. Republicans support it because they think private accounts will create Republicans. People will see that private account, and they'll start thinking like a business owner. They'll start thinking more Republican. Democrats oppose private accounts for the same reason Republicans support it: because they think it'll create Republicans.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has offered a starkly different reason for Democratic opposition to partial privatization. "Democrats believe that any proposals to reform Social Security must not add to the deficit, must not harm the middle class and must not cut guaranteed benefits," Pelosi said on January 6.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) echoed this objection on February 1, the same day that Brooks appeared on Nightline. "We don't believe there ought to be huge cuts" in benefits, Reid said.
Though political pundits frequently speculate about politicians' "true" motivations, a progressive pundit would likely have offered a different perspective about what motivates Democrats.
Earlier in the report, host Ted Koppel debunked the notion that Social Security is in "crisis," as Bush has repeatedly claimed. But Koppel portrayed the use of misleading crisis rhetoric as a bipartisan phenomenon, citing a 1998 quotation by then-President Clinton, while failing to note that Clinton's remarks came at a time when the Social Security trustees projected that trust fund would be exhausted in 2029, as Media Matters for America has noted. The trustees' most recent estimate is that the trust fund will remain solvent until 2042, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates the date of exhaustion at 2052. Moreover, Clinton's remark came in the context of arguing for the exact opposite of what Bush has done; in the speech, Clinton urged that "before we spend a penny of that [budget surplus] on new programs or tax cuts, we should save Social Security first." Here's what Koppel said about Clinton:
KOPPEL: We know that Social Security is in crisis. The president said so repeatedly. He said it on February 2nd, and he said it again on February 9th. And yes, I know today is only February 1st, but I'm talking about 1998, when the president, as I'm sure you recall, was Bill Clinton. On the occasion of submitting the 1999 budget to Congress, he said, "We have a great opportunity to take action now to avert a crisis in the Social Security system." Then a few days later, speaking at Georgetown University, President Clinton said, "This fiscal crisis in Social Security affects every generation." Which suggests, I suppose, that presidents on both sides of the political aisle have, A, concluded that our Social Security system needs fixing, and B, that the only way to focus your attention and mine on a problem is to elevate it to the level of a crisis. Well, it isn't. Not really. Not yet. It wasn't a crisis when so described by Bill Clinton, and it isn't one just because George W. Bush has now taken up the cause.