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It’s been a tough time for some Republicans, as they recoil from the shock of Donald Trump being the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
All that #NotTrump stuff, dreams of a deus ex machina entrance at the convention of a rescuer (a general, Speaker Paul Ryan) who would win on the second or third ballot: it was denial, a coping mechanism by the inside-the-Beltway people against reality.
How quickly people forget the past – and its lessons.
Eleven years ago (2005), I was a professional staffer at the House Ways and Means Committee, George W. Bush was kicking off his second Presidential term in January, and everything looked sunny.
Then he announced he wanted to use his ‘political capital’ to create ‘personal accounts’ that would partially replace traditional Social Security benefits. The idea was people would get a better rate-of-return on investments than if they stuck with the system we have now.
This idea has its roots in Reagan’s 1964 speech, A Time for Choosing.
But President Bush never mentioned changing Social Security during the 2004 campaign. What political capital had he built up for this issue?
As this was a Ways & Means matter, our chairman, Bill Thomas, committed to the House Speaker to hold a series of hearings in early 2005 to explore the personal accounts idea, with a view to ultimately marking up legislation.
And we held many hearings at the Social Security Subcommittee, sometimes one every two weeks.
Democrats robotically yelled ‘risky scheme’ every time they had the mic.
The moment of truth came when our Republican members went home for recess and got pummeled by seniors at town halls and diners. Not like the fake organized protests we see today, but local seniors being VERY angry with their local Congressional member.
Our members came back to D.C. The word was they wanted the chairman to drop the subject, immediately.
But the chairman had made a commitment to the Speaker (and the President), and we continued slogging through hearings. But only the subcommittee chairman would show up; the number of other Republican members showing up became fewer, and then zero.
Of course all Democrat members were present at the hearings, and they couldn’t wait to chant their ‘risky scheme’ chorus.
By Memorial Day 2005, the ‘personal accounts’ idea was dead. Its deep unlikeability was probably a factor in the GOP’s loss of the House of Representatives in 2006.
But then-Representative Paul Ryan, now Speaker Ryan, still believes in this idea. That’s a huge disconnect from reality, especially after the recession started in late 2007, stocks tumbled, and people made jokes that their 401(k)s had shrunk to 201(k)s, etc.
After 2007, we had further economic shocks to the system: some caused by China, others by Europe. Was it reasonable to expect ordinary Americans, including those with, say, a low level of education or intelligence, to entrust their retirement to economic events overseas?
Recall the Bush selling point was that by hiving off some Social Security taxes into ‘personal accounts,’ people would (in the long term) realize a greater rate of return. Of course, this was based on past economic history; who knows what the future will bring?
Some are willing to take risks in the market with their own retirement funds, others not. But a government program encouraging all workers to take risks? That seemed like a stretch to me, as ordinary people don’t care about ‘rates of return.’ They’ve unconsciously made a trade off for security instead of a better rate of return.
Further, as you have to work to earn the benefits, people do feel some degree of ownership in Social Security. Republican statements reminding people that they have no legal ownership in their Social Security accounts sound off-key, cold and scolding, not reassuring.
Lastly, people often choose their retirement date based on personal circumstances, not the health of the stock market. For example, some women have to retire due to the need to care for a very elderly parent.
And as Social Security disability rates indicate, people are not easily finding work at older ages (raising the retirement age was another shibboleth of the ‘personal accounts’ idea).
But the history of 2005 has stoutly been ignored on the Hill and in D.C. The House has many member clubs: clubs for true-believer conservatives, values voters conservatives, etc., but any mention of what happened in 2005 will get you disinvited to a club.
Which leads to a basic question: if Republicans and their associated think-tanks can’t free themselves from ideas the people don’t like – do they care about ideology more than the needs of ordinary people?
Enter Trump. Whether he truly feels about ordinary people, I don’t know. I can’t look into his soul. He certainly talks about them and to them in a way they understand, and in the world of politics, that’s probably good enough.
And by the way, he’s promised not to change Social Security.
Joanne Butler was a professional staff member at the US House Ways & Means Committee; issues included trade and Social Security. In the Bush Administration's Labor Department, she was a senior advisor to an assistant secretary, handling a wide range of issues from speechwriting to program quality control. She has a graduate degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard University, with a concentration in economics and international finance.