On Tuesday , I posted a column urging Barack Obama to emphasize John McCain’s long history of support for Social Security privatization – a position that looks even more embarrassing today than a few weeks or months ago. For some time, McCain has been trying to revise his own history and pretend that he “never” supported privatization (or what he and other Republicans daintily refer to as “personal accounts”). Obama shouldn’t let him get away with it.
Within a day following my post—by pure coincidence, needless to say—the Obama campaign aired an ad on the privatization theme in Michigan, as my former Observer colleague Ben Smith reported in Politico. (Ben also posted the ad on YouTube.) That ad or another with the same message is likely to appear elsewhere soon—perhaps because Obama adviser Jason Furman was among the economists who led the fight against the Bush privatization plan.
Yesterday, Michael Scherer, a former Salon.com colleague who has posted much excellent coverage of this election on Time’s Swampland blog, blasted the Obama ad, using the drearily familiar MSM meme that always holds both sides equally responsible for deceptive tactics. What his post displayed, however, was his own naïveté on this issue.
To argue that the Obama ad somehow distorted McCain’s position on Social Security, Scherer had to accept Republican talking points at face value. So he writes that although McCain supported Bush’s 2005 plan to privatize “a portion“ of Social Security, “it is not true that McCain is running for president on a platform of turning Social Security over to Wall Street.” He then goes on to quote McCain aide Mark Salter denying that his boss favors “privatization” while adding that “a small percentage [of Social Security contributions], even [invested] at a bond fund, would yield greater return over time than the government gets.”
Of course what Salter suggests in that quote is exactly what Bush and the privatization crowd wanted to do three years ago, as a first step toward complete dismantling of the system. Let’s leave aside for a moment that Salter and McCain seem to have no conception of what Social Security actually is – a social insurance system, not an investment portfolio – and that Scherer should know better.
It is an indisputable fact that McCain’s record shows that he favored privatizing Social Security, like his top economic adviser Phil Gramm, as far back as 1998, three years before Bush entered the White House and began to push the idea. It is equally indisputable that McCain told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, apropos of "reforming" Social Security: “I believe that private savings accounts are a part of it, along the lines that President Bush proposed.”
He spoke those words last March, in an obvious bid to unify his party and placate right-wingers who doubted his ideological purity. So was he or wasn’t he “running for president” on “a platform of turning Social Security over to Wall Street”?
In Scherer’s angry response to critics at Media Matters, Eschaton and Talking Points Memo, he writes: “The Obama social security ad says McCain wants to do what Bush did. This is not what McCain now says he wants to do. That’s the point. Candidates should argue with what their opponents say they will do, not with what can be inferred from a vote a decade ago.” Sorry, but McCain’s position on Social Security is clear from a pattern that began 10 years ago, intensified during the Bush push for privatization three years ago, and reappeared at a convenient moment six months ago.
One more thing. Scherer says, parenthetically, that “privatize” is a distraction because “the two sides differ on what the word means.” Actually, the word means exactly the same thing no matter who uses it. The Republicans have merely followed the advice of their pollster Frank Luntz, who prepared a famous memo urging that they never utter the word “privatization” again and always say “personal accounts” instead. (By the way, all this is covered in The Raw Deal, my 2005 book on the conservative movement’s privatization crusade.)
So the McCain campaign is still using the Luntz playbook, and why not? It still works, sometimes.