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Political Animal

Ice to Eskimos

By Brian Morton | Posted 2/9/2005

Remember that old saying about someone who could sell anything to anyone? “He could sell ice to Eskimos,” the old saw went. That’s how the GOP works nowadays, and that’s how the president is trying to kill Social Security.

Let’s not beat around the bush here: Conservatives hated the New Deal in the 1930s, they hated it in the 1970s, and they hate it now. And, for the first time in almost a quarter century, they see an opportunity to kill the greatest and most successful program that came out of it. In the ’30s, the right wing called Social Security “socialism.” The Los Angeles Times recently quoted a Texas Observer story about a young George W. Bush, who, while running for the House of Representatives in 1978, argued that Social Security would go bankrupt in 1988 if people weren’t allowed to take their money out and invest it themselves. Ronald Reagan had to back away from Social Security twice—when he proposed benefit cuts in 1981 (which lost the GOP a load of seats in Congress in the 1982 elections), then when he was challenged on it by Walter Mondale in the 1984 debates.

In 2000, at a Iowa campaign event, Ed O’Keefe of ABC News pointed out that Bush actually used the now-verboten term “privatization” when he said “What privatization does is allows the individual worker—his or her choice—to set aside money in a managed account with parameters in the marketplace.” Since then, Republican pollsters have told their candidates that the word “privatization”—exactly what the Republican plan is—brings up high negatives among voters. In the last month, the GOP language police has turned away from the word “private accounts” as well. As blogger Joshua Micah Marshall has quipped, there is now a “speech code” being enforced by the Giant Republican Media Wurlitzer that is attempting to force the mainstream media to use whatever terminology the president uses, else be accused of bias or partisanship. So now the president uses the warm and fuzzy phrase “personal accounts.”

Nearly every time the real numbers are brought up to a privatizer, the response is almost always the same: “It’s not about that, it’s about this.” Then the argument is reframed—usually excluding context, changing the subject, or comparing apples to oranges. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of yelling, “Look—something shiny!” The pro-privatization folks simply are not honest and upfront about what they want to do, because they know—that polling they did confirms it—that the great majority of Americans don’t want it to happen, and so they use the cushy words of “reform” and “personalization” to sell the ice.

Two conservative academics, Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis, wrote in 1983 what could be considered the playbook for the campaign Bush is trying to wage today. The Los Angeles Times quoted Butler and Germanis’ paper: “Our reform strategy involves what one might crudely call guerrilla warfare against both the current Social Security system and the coalition that supports it,” they wrote. “An economic education campaign . . . must be undertaken to demonstrate the weaknesses of the current system.”

On top of that, if you think this isn’t about feeding the giant sum of money that is the Social Security trust fund to the Wall Street sharks, they wrote that “building a constituency for Social Security reform requires mobilizing the various coalitions that stand to benefit from the change. . . . The business community and financial institutions, in particular, would be an obvious element in the constituency.”

This campaign is being run by a man who used any rationale he could—nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, rape rooms, democracy—to invade Iraq. He just kept shifting the terms until he found a way to do what he wanted. This is a man who used any rationale he could—“it’s your money,” deficit relief, economic stimulus, cheaper gas—to push his tax cuts, both when the nation was running surpluses and now that the nation’s books are dripping red. Again, he shifted the terms and the reasons until he found a way to do what he wanted. And, despite the fact that Social Security will, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, be able to pay benefits through 2052 with no changes at all to the system as it stands, and more than 80 percent of benefits for some years after that, the president just flat-out lied in his State of the Union address. For this man and his friends, remember: Any excuse will do.

Republicans know, and have known, that if they brought out their real agenda, unvarnished and honest, that it would be rejected outright. That is why they feel the need (like Bush did in his address) to cite Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Bill Clinton, and to cloak Social Security privatization in words like “reform” and “personal.” So when you hear the president talk about “reform,” remember, the ice he’s selling isn’t any colder than what you’ve already got. And, while you know what yours is made of, the man who said Social Security would go bankrupt in 1988 is just peddling decades-old yellow snow.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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