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Expect no change before its time

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
FRITZ
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By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 3, 2001


WASHINGTON -- Not many people in Washington aspire to be president. But there is always hot competition among Washingtonians to come up with the next big idea.

Ideas are the true currency of politics. Anybody can get elected to office, according to local lore, but only the most brilliant minds can come up with the problem-solving ideas that will help make the elected official a star.

The current gold standard in this marketplace of ideas is welfare reform. When welfare reform was first considered in Washington during the early 1980s, liberals pledged to fight it with their dying breath.

Then gradually over time, the idea gained recruits within the opposition. Even many welfare recipients were sick of the old system by the time President Clinton signed the reform measure into law.

Most big ideas take every bit as long as welfare reform did to be accepted by a majority. Only a crisis can shorten the process.

The idea of a federal homeland defense czar, for example, had been kicking around Washington for several years when terrorists attacked Sept. 11. Within a few days, the president adopted an idea that previously was thought to be useless. Not long ago, a Bush administration official told me he thinks the creation of private investment accounts as part of the Social Security system is the next big conservative idea that liberal Democrats will be forced to embrace. Advocates of private accounts have long displayed an unusual degree of confidence in their idea.

"An idea in Washington is like fine wine; it needs time to age," observes David John, the Heritage Foundation's expert on Social Security. "Private accounts as part of Social Security is an idea that is just about ready."

No one can quite remember how long the idea of private accounts has been around. The first time I heard it was in the mid 1970s when former California Gov. Ronald Reagan argued for what were then widely thought to be crazy ideas -- including welfare reform and privatization of Social Security -- on his daily syndicated radio show.

After he was elected president in 1980, Reagan's aides warned him against talking about privatizing Social Security, fearing that he would scare off the many elderly voters that were a natural part of his constituency. Reagan tried to follow their advice, but sometimes he slipped because he liked the idea of privatizing Social Security so much.

But conservatives continued to nurture the idea, hoping that Social Security's solvency problems would eventually open the way for their vision. And sure enough, when Bush was elected last year, they got another opportunity.

But the idea of private Social Security accounts is still a long way from being accepted by a majority, and last week that distance may have gotten even longer. When the president's Social Security Commission came up with three options for creating such a program, all three were so unappealing that even some of the strongest advocates of private accounts were disappointed.

In the life cycle of every big idea, there inevitably comes a day when the concept must be converted into an operational plan. And if the details do not enhance the idea, many people will quickly start to give up on it. Thus Democrats see the upcoming commission report as a boon to their efforts to kill private accounts.

The same thing happened in 1994 when people began to look closely at the details of President Clinton's plan for health care reform. Clinton, despite his keen political mind, did not have the good sense to redraft the proposal to meet the objections he was hearing from Congress.

After fumbling his health care plan, Clinton always seemed to prefer small ideas over big ones. Small ideas, such as the patient's bill of rights, may not solve a big problem such as unequal access to health care, but they certainly are easier to enact.

The question now facing Bush is whether he is willing to risk some of his abundant political capital to keep pushing for private investment accounts as part of the Social Security program. My guess is that he is not ready to take such a controversial step in the midst of waging a foreign war, and I am certain that Republicans in Congress do not want to answer for this big idea in the upcoming 2002 election.

"Big change in America almost never comes on a partisan issue," says Norman Ornstein, political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

At the same time, Ornstein cautions us not to assume that a brief setback with kill the idea of private Social Security accounts. Big ideas will prevail, he says, if there is a need. He thinks we will eventually have both private accounts and health care refrom.

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