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Hardball 101

It is getting increasingly difficult to find any Democrat who backs President Bush's plan for partially privatizing Social Security. Private accounts are now officially out of favor even among New Democrats, the most obvious source of potential administration support. The Democratic Leadership Council and a new centrist policy shop called Third Way both recently announced their opposition. Over in the House, many have been eyeing Adam Smith, the leader of the New Democrat Coalition, which has 67 members in the House. But, in an interview with The New Republic, Smith for the first time ruled out support for any proposal that includes private accounts funded through a carve-out of the Social Security payroll tax. “Social Security is a safety net. That's what it's there for. It's there to be the safest portion of your portfolio,” he told me. “It's a guaranteed benefit for a reason, and, for that reason, I don't support private accounts.” Smith doesn't speak for every moderate Democrat, but, he added, “I think there is broad consensus among New Democrats that you must not privatize the system.”

Smith's announcement is just one sign that the Democrats are learning how to be a true opposition party. There are still several Democratic senators, such as Tom Carper and Joe Lieberman, who have been cagey about their intentions, but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has thus far been more successful in enforcing discipline among his shrunken caucus than his predecessor, Tom Daschle. For instance, Reid has warned Senator Max Baucus, Bush's favorite Democratic deal-maker and the ranking minority member on the Senate Finance Committee, a crucial node in the coming debate, against cooperating with Bush.

Where are Democrats looking for inspiration about how to stop Bush's plan? Several party strategists are studying the Republicans' drive to kill the Clinton health care bill in 1993 and 1994. “The analogues are clearly there,” says a senior Democrat organizing opposition to the plan. “And, just like military tacticians often study the last war, politicians think that way, too. They were very successful, and, in 1993, the environment was more conducive to pass health care than it is now for Social Security.”

THE BIBLE FOR any Democrat looking for lessons from the last legislative battle as big as the coming Social Security debate is Haynes Johnson and David Broder's The System, a 700-page book that painstakingly documents how and why President Clinton's plan was defeated. There are important differences between 1993 and 2004, but here's what Democrats may learn from that debate.

Parliamentary procedure is destiny. “History will show that what undid the Clinton health care plan is the Byrd Rule,” says a senior Senate Democratic aide. The original legislative strategy for health care was to bundle the legislation with the new budget. The Democrats had a 56 to 44 majority in the Senate, similar to the GOP's current 55 to 45 majority, but the magic number for most legislation is a filibuster-breaking 60 votes. A key legislative exception is what is known as the reconciliation bill, the last stage of the annual budget process, which, under Senate rules, requires only a simple majority for passage. In 1981, Reagan used reconciliation to make major tax and spending changes. Clinton's entire strategy rested on the assumption that his plan could be passed quickly, and the reconciliation bill was the best chance to make that happen. But West Virginian Senator Robert Byrd famously killed that idea. The Byrd Rule was adopted by the Senate in 1985 to combat budget deficits. Anything not germane to the budget and, significantly for Bush's plan, anything that adds to the deficit, cannot be included in reconciliation under the Byrd Rule. Byrd warned the White House in 1993 that health care would not pass muster as part of reconciliation, and Clinton abandoned the strategy. Senate Republicans, however, have not been so timid about abusing the reconciliation process. In 2001, they used it to push through Bush's tax cuts (after replacing the Senate parliamentarian because they suspected he would rule for Democrats who argued that Bush's tax cuts violated the Byrd Rule). A huge amount of war-gaming among Senate Democrats right now concerns how to respond if Republicans try to use reconciliation to pass Bush's Social Security plan.

Delay equals defeat. Clinton admitted to Johnson and Broder that, once the Byrd Rule derailed his original plan, he should have fundamentally changed his congressional strategy instead of continuing to push for passage of a single, massive bill. Delay unquestionably benefited the GOP and its interest-group allies. Senate leader George Mitchell warned Hillary Clinton early in 1993, “If you wait until next year, the second year of the Congress, especially if you wait until the summer, the rules of the Senate are such that you dramatically enhance the leverage of the opposition.” Ira Magaziner, the plan's author, warned Clinton in a memo, “The more time we allow for the defenders of the status quo to organize, the more they will be able to marshal opposition to your plan and the better their chances of killing it.” Clinton's plan started off with overwhelming public approval, but it was destroyed by a savvy opposition that became emboldened as the 1994 elections approached.

Defeat breeds defeat. In Clinton's case, time brought not only a more organized opposition but also a crush of events—a bruising budget battle, political scandals, international crises—that sapped his political capital and distracted him from focusing on health care. The lesson for Democrats is obvious: The harder it is for Bush to pass other parts of his agenda, the harder it will be for him to pass his Social Security plan. Conversely, easy Bush victories on his budget, energy bill, tort reform, and judicial nominees will strengthen his hand on Social Security. At one point in 1994, Clinton believed a swift victory on what seemed like an easy-to-pass crime bill could serve as a springboard to revive health care. But, rather than hold their fire for the health bill, Newt Gingrich and his troops launched an all-out attack on the crime bill that caught the White House completely off guard. Similarly, today some Democrats believe that a fight over a highly polarizing Supreme Court nominee could be the magic bullet that saps the energy from Social Security.

Being in the opposition means opposing. If there is one lesson that leaps off the page when rereading the history of Hillarycare, it is that Clinton's foes were ruthless and systematic in their opposition to the president's plan. When Hillary Clinton tried to reach out to Senate Republicans in the spring of 1993, she found she could never schedule any meetings. It turned out that aides to Bob Dole had prohibited any Republican senator from sitting down with the first lady. A year later, when Democrats were trying to save the plan, Representative John Dingell reached out to a House Republican but was reportedly told, “John, there's no way you're going to get a single vote on this side of the aisle. You will not only not get a vote here, but we've been instructed that if we participate in that undertaking at all, those of us who do will lose our seniority and will not be ranking minority members within the Republican Party.”

Many Democrats today argue that their route back to power depends on transforming themselves into a party of reform. Some of these Democrats are scared that mere opposition—and denying Bush's claim that Social Security faces a “crisis”—hampers their efforts. But Republicans faced the same challenge in the early '90s and found that the two goals were not mutually exclusive. They didn't just kill health care reform, they used its corpse as a platform to redefine themselves as a reform movement that swept away the Democratic majority.

It's not just about Social Security. The Republicans knew in 1993 that they were not just engaged in a fight over health care but over the future of their own party. In a memo, conservative operative Bill Kristol warned Republicans that they had to “kill” rather than amend Clinton's proposal. Its success “will re-legitimize middle-class dependence for ‘security’ on government spending and regulation,” he wrote. “It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle-class by restraining government.” An almost perfect mirror-image of those sentiments applies to Bush's proposal and the Democrats' situation today. Democratic strategist James Carville succinctly echoed this point recently. Speaking privately to one of the Senate leaders charged with formulating a strategy to defeat Bush's plan, he warned, “You're the only thing standing in between Democrats and the abyss.” No wonder Democrats are so united.

This article appeared in the January 24, 2005, issue of the magazine.