Sunday, January 16, 2005

Kennedy vs. Frist on Social Security

So today I'm watching the Sunday morning funnies, a.k.a. the political shows, as is my usual Sunday morning routine to get the blood pressure up. I'm flipping back and forth, and start with Face the Nation, and Sen. Kennedy, a leading liberal voice for our party, talking about several issues, Social Security among them. I flip over to ABC and watch Sen. Frist, GOP majority leader for the dark side, on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, who is also talking about Social Security. The contrast in the arguments could not be greater.

I sat there stunned, remote falling from my hands, as I watched Sen. Kennedy reinforce the GOP frame, and at one point actually talk about raising taxes to fix social security. In horror, I pick up the remote and flip over to see Frist on point, on message, and reframing several very tough questions just to repeat his message on his terms. I sit there shaking my head and again wondering why.

Their guys get it. Our guys don't. Point by point below.

I'll begin by paraphrasing Frist (I'd link to a transcript, but ABC doesn't post them, but instead sells them. Today's show was not yet available anyway):

Frist started nearly every response by talking about how Social Security was in crisis. He was methodical in using the word "crisis" in every response. When asked about Social Security being solvent until 2042, he reframed the question into when is a crisis a crisis, linked it to a medial diagnosis (he is a doctor), and how he viewed solving something before it was a crisis as the moral thing to do. This statement was ended with a questioning look and a tone that seemed to ask, " George, why don't you understand?"

One answer in particular I though showed a deft ability to link the common awareness of the recent tsunami disaster to the Social Security "crisis" Frist was selling. I can't remember the response verbatim, but Frist referred to the "tidal wave" of disaster such a crisis could bring upon our seniors if Social Security wasn't reformed now when we had the chance to avert such a crisis. The guy was brilliant. On message. Completely relentless.

Now let's contrast that with our side's representative this morning: Sen. Kennedy. This one has a transcript available. The response is to a question by Dan Balz, political correspondent of The Washington Post. Note even Balz uses Bush's frame of "private savings accounts" in his question (emphasis mine):
Mr. BALZ: Let me turn now to the biggest domestic battle that's seen on the horizon which is President Bush's plan to try to introduce private savings accounts into the Social Security system as a way to reform it and guarantee its financial stability. It was reported today in The New York Times that the president and the White House have enlisted the Social Security Administration to help make the case that the system is in crisis and to push for his accounts. What's your reaction to that and what should Democrats do about it?

Sen. KENNEDY: Well, there's a number of reactions. First of all, it seems that this administration tries to make a crisis on any political problem. We've got a crisis in Social Security, in the funding and the financing which we don't. We have a crisis in the medical malpractice as the cost for health care and it's not there. If the president wanted to really do something in terms of the health care, they could have signed the Patients Bill of Rights and provided more protection for people and to deal with this other kind of malpractices unless it's $2 out of every health dollar.
Note right out of the box Kennedy repeats Bush's statement of crisis, not only for Social Security but for medical malpractice as well. Yes he's adding a negative at the end of the statement, but the frame is being firmly reinforced by the way Kennedy is stating his response. Even his attempt at a jab Bush's is muddled and ends with a statement that makes little more sense in print than it did spoken.
So now we have the crisis in terms of the funding of Social Security that is non-existent. It's solid till 2042. And without any help, it'll be able to continue to 2075 with three-quarters of the benefits if there was going to be no help and assistance to it. All you have to do is raise the payroll tax on that and that would solve most of the kind of a problem that you'd have, other kinds of ways to dealing with it. And that is certainly something we ought to think about.
Again, he returns to his possibility of a point by again stating the president's frame, again with the negative tacked on to the end. He then goes on to name several facts without tying them to anything real or emotional. Then actually proposes raising taxes to solve the Social Security crisis that does not exist. But this is certainly something we should think about? Good God, he just keeps going willy nilly:
The Democrats aren't for looking for new ways to try and deal with the Social Security. President Clinton talked about private savings accounts. And if you had the kind of economic conditions that we had with President Clinton, Democrats would be saying, `Let's go about that and let's try that out now as a supplement to Social Security.' So we are prepared certainly. Democrats are prepared to deal with those particular kinds of challenges.
Sigh. Democrats aren't looking for new ways. President Clinton linked to the very thing Bush wants to do. Ending with the wonderful concept that Democrats would look at doing this if the economy was better, when Bush keeps saying that the economy is better. At least he buried the phrase "as a supplement to" in there towards the end. Small victories.

Could we do any worse in response to this debate? Rhetorical, of course. I'm just glad Frist was on another channel, so the two weren't seen by many people side by side. Never was Bush's plan directly refuted. Never was Bush's plan questioned. Never was Bush's plan referred to as privatization of Social Security. Never was the fact that such privatization would not fix the shortfall that Bush claims it will fix, but only made the shortfall worse. Never was the word "risk" "loss" or "gamble" used. Never. Not once.

Compare this to Krugman's response to a similar question in Rolling Stone:
You've been sold a scare story. Right now Social Security has a large and growing trust fund -- a surplus that has been collected to pay for the surge in benefits we'll experience when the baby boomers start to retire. If you're twenty now, you'll be hitting retirement around 2052. That's the year the Congressional Budget Office says the trust fund will run out. In fact, many economists say it may never run out. If the economy continues to grow at an average rate, the trust fund could quite possibly last forever.
I'm just amazed and frustrated. Is this really the best our side can do? Have we learned nothing? I think half the people in the Blogosphere could have framed this argument better.

Frist won this one. Luckily it was just a political talk show this time. If our side doesn't get on the ball though, I fear this talk show comparison may just be acted out in Congress.