by Jonathan Singer, Mon Jul 14, 2008 at 04:31:18 AM EDT
According to Gallup polling, the only -- only -- age group to give John McCain more support than Barack Obama are those voters over the age of 65. Yet McCain appears willing to and intent on tempting fate with this group, taking their support for granted by pushing an ill-conceived and wildly unpopular Social Security privatization plan -- a move, I might add, that makes McCain look more, rather than less, like George W. Bush, the last major leader to try to make a push to privatize the program. Here's the Los Angeles Times today.
It was a spectacular flop: a president making dozens of fruitless trips around the country to build support for a plan his own party's leadership refused to accept.
But President Bush's failed push to privatize Social Security has not deterred John McCain from putting forward the same idea -- and from risking a similar political disaster.
McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, spoke several times last week about changing how the popular retirement program is funded, at one point calling it a "disgrace" that younger workers are forced to pay for a plan that, in his view, is unlikely to benefit them when they retire.
Democrats are gearing up to turn McCain's stand on Social Security, and his willingness to consider a privatization plan, into a key campaign issue. They say changing the program in that way would undermine retirees' benefits, and they hope to use the issue to harm the Arizona senator's support among a set of voters who tilt toward him -- seniors.
If it weren't for the fact that the last several months have given me a real opportunity to see the sheer hubris mixed with an overwhelming self-righteousness that largely defines McCain's political career, I would likely be shocked to see him go to the mat on this issue. After all, as alluded to in the article above, it was President Bush's efforts to privatize the Social Security program that served as one of the key turning points in the country in the last four years -- along with the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and the Terri Schiavo fiasco -- that woke voters up and got them engaged for change. As much as anything else, the progressive pushback on Social Security -- which was driven in no small part by the netroots -- turned George W. Bush into a lame duck the first year of his second term.
Yet even though the American people spoke clearly and forcefully in 2005 in rejecting any move to privatize Social Security, McCain is nevertheless sticking to his guns on the issue. Stubbornness is apparently not a trait held exclusively by George W. Bush but rather one that he shares with his heir apparent.
And for as much of a risk as pulling even closer to George W. Bush on the economy is for McCain, calling a "disgrace" a program beloved by Americans -- particularly older voters, one of McCain's few bases of support -- and also remarkably effective is beyond risky: it's just plain not smart. Maybe McCain will be able to get away with taking for granted the support of older voters, but if he does it will not be despite his position on privatization but rather in spite of it -- it is a hurdle McCain is putting up in addition to the ones already ahead of his campaign.
But if McCain wants to embrace a wildly unpopular position, one that risks alienating him from one of his key constituencies while at the same time making him look even more like George W. Bush (if such a thing were even possible), I say go ahead. Far be it from me to recommend he not take steps that decrease rather than increase the likelihood of him being elected in November.