In Praise of Obstructionism

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The New York Times outlines Bush’s strategy for phasing out Social Security today. He needs Democrats. He doesn’t need Democratic ideas. He doesn’t want Democratic ideas. No, what he needs are Democratic patsies to provide “political cover for his party.”

So that’s the game, and no doubt lots of pundits with sprawling op-ed real estate are going to implore the Democrats to stop being such obstructionists and start coming up with their own ideas. Needless to say, Democrats do have an idea for a retirement program. It goes a little something like this: Let’s have a universal pension system, financed with payroll taxes, that insures against outliving your savings, disability, death of a spouse or parent, and provides a minimum guaranteed benefit upon retirement. It’s a pretty good plan! The only weird thing about it is that it already exists, but I don’t see why that’s a flaw.

So let’s dispense with the “Democrats have no ideas” charade. They have a great idea. But there’s another point to make here: obstructionism simply isn’t a losing tactic. Recall back to the health care battles in 1993-94. In the early days, Republicans did have their own reform alternatives to the Clinton plan, but slowly retracted them, and beginning in January of 1994, decided it was in their best interest to obstruct the president at all costs. Minority Leader Bob Dole even voted against a health care proposal he had earlier co-sponsored. Meanwhile, Republicans started chanting over and over again, at every turn, that there was no health care “crisis” in America, even though most Americans disagreed. I trust the parallels are obvious.

Searching through Nexis, it’s not hard to find all sorts of examples of TV talking heads chastising the GOP for it’s head-in-the-sand approach. On February 13, 1994, Howard Kurtz slammed the Republicans for offering “no alternative.” On February 2, William Schneider got on CNN to say that if the Republicans kept digging their heels in the dirt, they’d run the danger of looking like “obstructionists.” (Said Schneider: “So they’re in a bind.”) And here’s a great passage from U.S. News and World Report, February 7:

Yet Clinton himself enjoys some significant political advantages as the battle begins. As he demonstrated last week, the president can command public attention in ways that no opponent can begin to match. And his sympathy for the fears of ordinary Americans connects with voters and echoes their own concerns. For that reason, many Republican strategists are aghast at the new line of some GOP leaders that there is ”no crisis” in the health care system. That argument, says Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman, ”just reinforces the image of flint-hearted Republicans,” the same image that helped cost George Bush the 1992 election. Celinda Lake agrees: ”I hope we get every Republican candidate saying there is no crisis — on tape.”

And yet the Republicans won that battle. Granted, they won for a number of reasons—not least that the Clinton administration made a number of missteps—but the point is that they didn’t pay a price for their obstructionism, even when every single pundit in the world was warning them about their “no crisis” line and demanding that they offer an alternative. Democrats are in an even stronger position today. Social Security is healthy, successful, and popular. As BusinessWeek recently reported, voters of all demographics like having a safety net that mitigates the most severe risks of a market economy. No Democrat should ever provide “political cover” to a president who wants to destroy a program that has enjoyed wide bipartisan support for 70 years.

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