Recently "Meet the Press" introduced America to that hot new Senate Minority Leader sensation, Harry Reid. Judging from this appearance, the Nevada solon has adopted Tom Daschle's preternatural calm, as if trying to reassure the Skittish-American community that there is one sober man interposed between them and that hootin' and hollerin' maniac in the White House. But he comes off as someone who got a grant to explain calculus to chimps, and thinks the key is speaking very slowly.
Unfortunately, that makes people pay attention to what he says. "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert brought up Social Security reform. It was once the untouchable "third rail," but in the second Bush term it's going to be a balance beam on which everyone performs a variety of acrobatic maneuvers. So how about privatizing a wee bit of it, senator?
"I can remember as a little boy my widowed grandmother with eight children," Reid told Russert. "She lived alone, but she felt independent because she got every month her old-age pension check. That's what this is all about. The most successful social program in the history of the world is being hijacked by Wall Street."
Ah yes. Old Granny again, reanimated to drag a 19th century idea into the 21st. You could use the same granny to advocate for the return of the WPA or the reinstatement of the sarsaparilla subsidy or the Charley McCarthy Act, which froze the nation's number of frightening ventriloquist dummies at six.
The proposed changes in Social Security, after all, affect the future. No one's proposing we go back in time, revoke Granny's benefits, and let Rockefeller spend her check on a pearl-handled cane so he can walk down Fifth Avenue and thrash beggars in style.
We're talking about letting younger workers have control over a small portion of their government-mandated contributions. "Choice," to use the hallowed word.
Everyone knows the system will explode in a shower of shredded promissory notes at some point. Every year the drop-dead date gets massaged and moved around, but you have a great number of people who read the new Projected Year of Doom, run the numbers in their head, and think: Well, I'll be dead.
The youth of America, however, are suspicious about ever seeing dime one. The youth of America have a hard time putting down the gaming console every four years and making it to the polls, so there's not much hay to be made reshaping the system to reassure them.
But this will change once they marry, spawn and start looking at their own golden years. The Democrats could get out in front of the Republicans on Social Security if they wished and do so in a fashion that satisfies every constituent group.
First, embrace some measure of privatization. Call them Citizen Managed Accounts! People could track and control their mandatory investments on the computer, and to make it easy, the government would hand out computers as well as Internet access paid for by taxes on high-speed Internet services.
Voila: new populist jargon, a new entitlement, and a new progressive levy. Hire Howard Dean to voice the interface for the program you use to check your investments. You've got dividends! Yeaagh!
Reid, however, channels the tropes of yore, when the simple yeoman of the fruited plain was whipsawed by the machinations of shadowy, oyster-eating financiers in New York banquet halls. "They are trying to destroy Social Security," Reid said, "by giving this money to the fat cats on Wall Street, and I think it's wrong."
It's the same old Chicken Little screed: The Republicans don't want to reform public education or Social Security or the high holy tax code, they want to DESTROY it for the nefarious enrichment of money men and Jesus freaks. Naturally you wouldn't engage these maniacs on the issues. You'd simply oppose them out of hand.
If the Democrats don't want to be the party of new ideas, fine. But at least get some new writers to punch up the script. Convincing young people to part with 15 percent of their paycheck in honor of the old woman who lived in a shoe does not exactly thrill the Xbox generation. They might share your dislike of fat cats. But they think you're talking about Garfield. Or even senators.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington
and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.