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February 4, 2005


PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. If there was ever any doubt that reform of Social Security will be the central domestic effort of President Bush's second term, there was no question after the President's State of the Union Address on Wednesday night. The president challenged a highly partisan Congress to join him in making major changes, including the gradual introduction of private investment accounts. The question is whether the Democrats have decided to just say no. Listen to the president, watch who applauded and who did not, and then listen to the Democratic reaction:

PRESIDENT BUSH: Social Security was a great moral success of the 20th century and we must honor its great purposes in this new century. The system, however, on its current path is headed toward bankruptcy and so we must join together to strengthen and save Social Security. You've got children in their 20s as some of us do, the idea of Social Security collapsing before they retire does not seem like a small matter and it should not be a small matter to the United States Congress.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: Many of us believe that privatization and the $2 trillion dollars of debt is a code word to destroy Social Security not preserve it. The bottom line is very simple. Forty-four Democrats have signed a letter and every one of us believes that Social Security reform should not add trillions of dollars of debt in a risky privatization scheme.

PAUL GIGOT: Here to discuss all this are Dan Henninger, a columnist and deputy editor of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial page, Jason Riley, a senior editorial page writer and Peggy Noonan, a contributing writer for the editorial page.

Dan, you saw the Republican and Democratic reactions. As Senator Schumer says, "We've got 44 votes, forget about it." And the simple fact is the political math here is that the president, to get something passed, needs five, maybe six, Democrats to get 60 votes in the Senate. Is there any chance of real bipartisanship emerging here?

DAN HENNINGER: Bipartisanship? What's that?

PAUL GIGOT: We remember it in ancient history some time ago.

DAN HENNINGER: Remember when Lyndon Johnson said "Come let us reason together?" I think bipartisanship died back about then. The only way this is going to happen is if George Bush goes out into the country and sells this idea and if the country responds. Then Congress will feel it's under some pressure to do something. Absent that, I don't see the Democrats ...if Bush proposed Hillary Clinton's first health care plan they'd oppose it.

DAN HENNINGER: The antipathy to George Bush is probably the greatest thing he has going for them. I think it has damaged the Democrats ability to form coherent ideas and absent pressure from the public, nothing is going to happen.

PEGGY NOONAN: But that's why Bush is doing this week and for the next few weeks and maybe months, the ground game. He is going to the American people. He is saying "Let's think together about Social Security. We all agree it's in trouble. I think we ought to change it and make it better this way but I'll listen to all things."

But one of the things that I think I know the hard numbers in the Senate are not good news at this moment for the president, but one of the things that I think is probably going to become part of this debate is the fact that people on the ground in America in general see Bush as a tough, serious and sincere person. And if he says we've got to do this as our number one priority they'll actually listen. If the Democrats altogether enforced "Just say no," they won't necessarily take that seriously. They'll figure it's part of a political game. So I think that's part of this thing.

JASON RILEY: And that's what he's doing. He's hitting states, specifically red states, that he won with moderate Democratic senators and trying to put the pressure on those senators by speaking directly to their constituents. He's hit Kent Conrad in North Dakota and he's hit Ben Nelson in Nebraska. And he's going to try and put some pressure on these moderate Democrats to come on board and hopefully encourage some others to come on board that way.

PAUL GIGOT: The president won North Dakota by 61 percent so clearly he's popular there, but don't you see Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid basically saying to their colleagues, "Here look, this is a party issue gentlemen. This is a party position and for you to buck us here in the Senate it's going to be a high price to pay." That's how I see what's emerging as the leadership staking out such a strong position in advance of things. Put the pressure on those Democrats so they can't break.

PEGGY NOONAN: I think so. I also think the Democrats fear that if Bush succeeds on this, Bush and the Republicans own Social Security in a way they never have. It's always been a Democratic program and the Democrats always took credit for it. They don't want to lose any of that.

JASON RILEY: That's what's pretty incredible about what's going on here -- the opposition to this. Democrats are not proposing an alternative plan of their own. Instead, all of their energies are being put into opposing the president's plan and Social Security is a Democratic idea. It's a New Deal program. You'd think that Democrats would be taking the initiative in wanting to fix it, renew it for a new generation. Instead they're putting all their energies into saying there is no problem.

PAUL GIGOT: And that's why Bob Kerrey, former senator from Nebraska who is a president of a school in New York, wrote on our pages that Democrats ought to approach Social Security and see what they can do to fix it. But let's talk about the Gingrich strategy, which I hear from a lot of Democrats, which is the Republican Newt Gingrich in 1993 and 1994. They believe one Congress, because in part they Republicans oppose so much of what the Democrats did. Democrats had the majority. They couldn't get what they wanted done, particularly health care, and Republicans prevailed. That's the mindset now among some Democrats. They think it worked for them, why shouldn't it work for us? Why won't it work for the Democrats?

DAN HENNINGER: Well, it just might as a matter of fact. You know the last two presidential elections have been very close. Much closer, I think, than any of us thought they would have been. Close to 50 percent of the country is willing to vote Democratic and you have to ask yourself why? Because the Democrats don't seem to be proposing the kind of detailed agenda that Gingrich did. And I think the answer is, as with Social Security, is that a lot of people in this country still feel the government does have a role, an appropriate role in caring for people's futures. And it's a kind of vague idea, but it does still have a lot of appeal.

PEGGY NOONAN: I disagree with one part. 1994 is 11 years ago. Gingrich and his Republicans were representing a sizable portion of the American people who wanted certain things. They seriously disagreed with Clinton. They wanted lower taxes. They didn't want this health care thing. You know the things they wanted. So Gingrich obstructed the Democrats in pursuit of serious goals.

Right now we have the Democrats in Congress obstructing a president, not in pursuit of serious goals, but only for the electoral pleasure so obstructing if you will. That's how I see it.

JASON RILEY: And they tried the strategy and it doesn't have a very good track record. Their former leader, Tom Daschle in the Senate, not only lost his seat but lost four other Senate seats with this strategy of obstruct, obstruct, obstruct.

PAUL GIGOT: They weren't in control, though, of the entire Senate and both parties. That's the difference, is it now?

JASON RILEY: There's some difference there, but you have to wonder if they're not going to propose some alternatives of substance if the strategy will work.

PAUL GIGOT: There is something that happens to Congressional parties some times. You saw it in the late 1990s, I would argue, with the Republicans on Kosovo when they got so angry at Bill Clinton and they were frustrated that they hadn't been in the White House for six years. You begin to start paying attention to yourselves and your own base. You have a kind of centrifugal force so you just get really negative. And we were very critical of the Republicans on Kosovo because Clinton, President Clinton looked like he was representing the national interest. People want to win when we get into a conflict and sometimes if you're going to look negative, you really need somebody like an executive branch leader like Bill Clinton was in 1992 rescuing the Democrats on trade and foreign policy and then President Bush in 2000 rescuing the Republicans from that anti-Clinton mindset.

DAN HENNINGER: Yeah. I think something very much like that is going on here. This is a second-term president. He's just won re-election. After the State of the Union speech, CNN did one of those quick polls. You know how many people opposed the speech? 16 percent. People are willing at this point in time, I think, to concede the president some slack, just as they were Clinton back then. Clinton was not as unpopular at the beginning of his second term as he was among Republicans, so I think they might be making a miscalculation if they go into total obstruction.

JASON RILEY: And the Democrats, I mean the party I think is a long way away from JFK's "Bear any burden."

PAUL GIGOT: On foreign policy in particular.

JASON RILEY: On foreign policy in particular. [LAUGHS] A long way. Now they speak about cut and run exit strategy. They've come a long way.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, is that good politics? An exit strategy. There are a lot of smart Democrats who are coming to this position and saying "Mr. President, we need a timetable to get out, the president expressly rejected that in his speech."

PEGGY NOONAN: He did, but I think you know I think we're divided between ...half the country knows that the exit strategy is win. That's the exit strategy. You get in there, you win, you get the bad guys, you lower the temperature, you get the democracy going, then you can leave. Nobody can say we're going to do that by next Thursday or October 15th. Do you know what I mean? So to me it seems it's a buzz phrase "exit strategy." It's a phrase from the Vietnam era and I think those who are using it are caught in the Vietnam era. Seeing everything through that prism.

PAUL GIGOT: I'll tell you the Democrat I think to watch Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator from New York. She wants to be president in 2008. She realizes, I think, that you cannot become president looking on foreign policy the way some other Democratic candidates have like John Kerry. And I think she's going to be very careful to map out a peace-through-strength, strong-looking foreign policy. I've got to give myself the last word Jason, sorry.