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Obama, Social Security, And "conventional Thinking"

There's something odd about Barack Obama's latest attacks on Hillary Clinton for not offering a plan to "save" Social Security. Josh Marshall is already complaining that Obama's new strategem buys into the view of what Jon Chait wonderfully dubbed "entitlement hysterics." But beyond that substantive question is a meta question about the politics of Social Security. When Bush tried to overhaul the program in 2005, nothing infuriated the anti-privatization crowd more than the notion that Democrats were obligated to put a specific plan on table--one the left assumed Republicans would demagogue to shreds. "What's Your Plan?"-ism was widely derided by the left as the worst of Washington-insider conventional thinking. Better to keep your mouth shut, Democrats said--which is why Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid always refused to offer a Democratic "alternative," and is probably also why Hillary won't play along, either.

And yet Obama now argues that Hillary's refusal to offer a Social Security plan is itself "conventional thinking in Washington" which says "you should hedge, dodge, and spin, but at all costs, don’t answer.” But Obama's got it backwards. In fact "conventional thinking in Washington" is much closer to Obama's position than to Hillary's. Indeed "conventional thinking" around here is probably best represented by this Dan Balz Washington Post piece scolding Hillary for ducking Social Security specifics. (Indeed I suspect Balz's piece may have convinced the Obama camp that this was a good card to play.)

I think the problem here may be that Obama remains reluctant to really go after Hillary's character--to portray her as unethical and dishonest on some fundamental level. So he is taking what could be an attack on sneaky Clintonian phoniness and trying to weave it into his larger critique of "conventional thinking" in Washington. But in this case I just don't think it fits.

P.S. My Googling for this item turned up this March 2005 Balz piece warning that Bush "could yet outflank" Congressional Democrats if they didn't come up with their own specific reform counterproposal. I suspect most readers of this blog will know how prescient that warning turned out to be.

--Michael Crowley