Bush’s pride and regret

BUSH’S PRIDE AND REGRET…. As part of his series of exit interviews, George W. Bush has been talking quite a bit about his failed attempt to privatize Social Security. It’s been tough to keep track, though, of whether he feels good or bad about what happened.

Last week, for example, the president told Fred Barnes that his Social Security scheme was an accomplishment for which he hasn’t earned enough credit. Two days later, Bush identified his Social Security effort as one of his more notable regrets.

So, which is it? In his press conference yesterday, the president elaborated a bit.

“I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the ’04 elections was a mistake. I should have argued for immigration reform. And the reason why is, is that — you know, one of the lessons I learned as governor of Texas, by the way, is legislative branches tend to be risk-adverse. In other words, sometimes legislatures have the tendency to ask, why should I take on a hard task when a crisis is not imminent? And the crisis was not imminent for Social Security as far as many members of Congress was concerned.

“As an aside, one thing I proved is that you can actually campaign on the issue and get elected. In other words, I don’t believe talking about Social Security is the third rail of American politics.”

Putting the merit of the argument aside, I think I understand what Bush is trying to say here — he regrets having pursued privatization because it couldn’t pass, but he’s glad he proved that a candidate can run on privatization and still win a national election.

Except, he didn’t. The 2004 race was four whole years ago, but it’s recent enough to know that Bush did not “campaign on” his Social Security scheme.

Indeed, the Bush campaign created 64 TV ads for the 2004 cycle. How many mentioned the president’s position on Social Security? None. The campaign also prepared a 26-page “Agenda for America” booklet a few months before the election, presenting Bush’s policy proposals in a bland and superficial way. There were just 33 words on “voluntary personal retirement accounts” hidden deep within the brochure — the issue didn’t even get its own page — offering no details on what he had in mind. For that matter, in 2004, Bush delivered exactly zero policy addresses on Social Security.

Bush “proved” that one can “campaign on” privatizing Social Security and still win? Hardly. The president started pushing the issue in 2005, Americans who had never heard a word about this hated the idea, and Bush’s approval rating quickly dropped below 50%, never to rebound. If anything, Bush “proved” the opposite.

Update: It looks like Kevin Drum was thinking along the same lines, and posted his take a half-hour earlier. I hate it when that happens.