New polls from New York Times/CBS News, Pew and even the Senate Republican Conference confirm what we already knew - support for private accounts is cratering. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of Senate Finance, is hinting that Republicans should drop them entirely.
Yet even as the GOP flails around for a deal to cut, the President is planning a "60-day, 60-stop barnstorming tour to promote the president's plan for overhauling Social Security." This begs the question: why is Bush not running away from private accounts as fast as he can? I don't know, but here are some possible answers:
1) Overconfidence. Bush has won every debate in which he's ignored the naysayers -- particularly the first tax cut and Iraq -- and outlasted two opponents (Gore and Kerry) who many observers thought would beat him. He thinks the key to political victory is standing strong and not giving in unless it's absolutely necessary at the last minute. A report in the Washington Post today suggests that this might be the case: "Despite polls showing support for the plan slipping, Bush is confident he is winning the first phase of the public debate over Social Security and has no plans to significantly alter his strategy for enacting the most dramatic changes ever to the venerable system, said senior White House officials who have talked to Bush."
A somewhat different version of this comes from Robert Novak, who claims that Bush "has confided to close associates that he committed a whopper on Social Security. He admitted error in pushing for new personal accounts while not stressing the repair of the safety net for seniors." In this sense, it's a different kind of overconfidence -- overconfidence in the administration's ability to change its message and win the debate, rather than understanding that private accounts will face staunch opposition regardless of what Bush "stresses."
2) Strategic calculation. Some people in the White House may be realizing that private accounts are a political loser, but they need to keep blustering to hold Republicans in line so that they can cut a deal before Bush goes down in flames. This is the alternative interpretation of the quote above.
3) Desperation. Bush has put all his so-called "political capital" on the table, and it turns out that there isn't much of it. He was re-elected by the narrowest margin of any incumbent president in decades and the American people deny he won a mandate in post-election polling, particularly when it comes to Social Security. If he loses on Social Security, his whole second term unravels, as Noam Scheiber suggests on his New Republic blog:
The real impact here, I think, is psychological. If privatization fails--particularly so early on--both congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans will realize Bush is no longer invulnerable. Republicans members of Congress will stop snapping to attention when the White House calls. Democrats will feel emboldened to oppose the administration on any number of other initiatives. Suddenly the whole dynamic of congressional debates changes. One obvious place to look for this is any tax reform push down the line. Another is judicial confirmations--though the Democrats risk over-reaching here if they get too cocky. In general, I'd expect pretty much everything you normally associate with lame-duckness, only much, much sooner.
Meanwhile, some of the President's supporters continue to be observing this debate from another dimension. Former White House economist Gregory Mankiw and a former staffer who served with him offer this "advice" to Democrats in the Wall Street Journal -- "Embrace personal accounts. By themselves, voluntary personal accounts are neither a panacea nor a threat to the social safety net. The key is how the system works. So stop objecting to the concept of personal accounts and focus on the details." And the WSJ editorial board argues that the President should propose diverting even more revenue into private accounts to win the debate. Of course, all the negative effects of private accounts, including trillions of dollars in deficits over the next several decades, would be intensified by such a choice. Why anyone would think that would make private accounts more popular is beyond me.
Apparently, creating your own version of reality isn't as easy as the White House thought, but they and their allies are certainly trying...