David Brooks, playing his I'm-thoughtful-and-above-the-fray card rather than his partisan card now that the election season has passed, worries about the apparent failure of President Bush's Social Security plan:
"[I]f Social Security reform fails ... it will be many years before any sort of big entitlement reform will come up again. The parties will keep playing chicken, and we will soon find ourselves catastrophically buried under our own debt."
Brooks is making a prediction, not an immediately verifiable or falsifiable claim about current policy. But I must say I strongly disagree. Actually, what I disagree with is not the somber prediction, which seems all too plausible, but the suggested causation.
Bush has gotten burned, not for trying to tackle the financing gap, which his Administration has for some time admitted is not addressed by substituting private accounts for existing benefits, but for trying to run a unilateral steamroller on a controversial policy change, on the supposed view that this would permit otherwise controversial benefit cuts to be made. Instead, he seems to have made benefit cuts even more of a political hot potato than they would have been standing alone.
There is no lesson whatsoever that the parties cannot, as in 1983, cooperate to make Social Security more sustainable by combining tax-side and benefit-side changes. If anything, what has happened this year reconfirms the lesson of 1983 by showing that alternative political approaches do not work.
Brooks blames the Democrats for playing Yasir Arafat, as he puts it, by turning down compromise offers floated by Republican Senators. At this point I'm not enormously interested in playing the blame game, but it certainly is worth noting that, after the way the Democrats have been rolled and excluded from all Capital Hill action over the last few years, a lot more would have been needed to persuade them that the Republicans meant to do serious bipartisan business and could be trusted at it.
Desperately offering concessions when you're way behind on points, and when you have zero track record of cooperative behavior in the past few years, is not the best way to test bipartisan good faith. So there is no lesson from the Bush follies that responsible bipartisan measures to address the fiscal gap have no chance. The lesson, rather, is that scorched-earth partisanship is a political dead end. Let's hope that the next generation of Republican leaders - since the current generation is lost beyond redemption - is listening.