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Social Security at roots of shift

Democrats set groundwork in reform fight

WASHINGTON -- Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid had a decision to make. President Bush was starting his second term with a brash challenge to a sacred Democratic program -- Social Security -- and the House and Senate Democratic leaders needed a coordinated response, and fast.

Pelosi and Reid, new leaders of demoralized and diminished Democrats in the House and Senate, were caught off guard by the president's gambit, and quickly faced Republican mockery that the Democratic Party could only say "no." Would Democrats offer a plan of their own? Or would they insist on total opposition, brushing aside Bush's not-so-subtle message that Democrats would stand in his way at their own peril?

Top party leaders debated their response in a series of frantic meetings and conference calls early last year, according to aides who spoke on condition of anonymity. Then Pelosi brought up a piece of advice shared by several marketing specialists from the business world she had sought out: You can't build up your brand unless you first take down the competition's.

And so Pelosi and Reid put out the word: There would be no Democratic Social Security plan, and no negotiating with Bush as long as he insisted on privatization. With that move they laid the groundwork for Tuesday's electoral sweep -- a Republican washout that will give Reid the title of Senate majority leader and make Pelosi House speaker in January.

"They never offered a complex counter-agenda," said Stephen Wayne , a government professor at Georgetown University. "They ran on the thing that they all could agree on: that this president and this Congress did not put us in the right direction."

Democrats made huge gains in the mid term elections for a variety of factors -- an unpopular war in Iraq, congressional scandals, frustration with Bush's style of leadership.

But the victory had its roots in that early and successful battle against Social Security reform, which gave Democrats crucial unity and momentum at a time when many pundits were predicting a permanent Republican majority, according to party strategists and veteran Democratic lawmakers.

"We had to fight that tendency that said you needed to have a plan when you're the minority in Congress," said Representative Barney Frank , a Newton Democrat who was elected to a 14th House term last week and is in line to become chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services.

"On Social Security, it was exactly right to say our job is to say 'no' to this," Frank added. "And it turned out that that was also the right answer on Iraq."

The ultimate test for Democrats will be how they use their majority, not how they won it, and on that front the current crop of leaders is woefully untested, political observers say. Democrats haven't controlled the House and Senate in 12 years, and they're coming back to power with a thin agenda.

The closest thing to a Democratic platform for governing -- their "Six of '06" plan -- represents a modest list of priorities that Bush and the Republican Congress had blocked, including a minimum-wage hike and cuts in interest rates for student loans.

It lacks the sweep of the "Contract with America" that Republicans rode to power in 1994, a manifesto that kept Republicans on track in the early days of their new majority.

After Democrats enact their first batch of goals they will have to define their strategy for governing without much of a blueprint, said Julian Zelizer , a congressional historian at Boston University.

"Now it's on their back to put together one, two, three big issues for them to go on," said Zelizer. "People are not as united once you're in the power of governing. That's when the disputes will start to come out."

The chances of a Democratic takeover this year once seemed very small. The 2004 elections were a Republican sweep, with Bush returned to office for a second term with expanded majorities in both the House and Senate.

As the current congressional session started, Pelosi had been House minority leader for barely a year, and Reid had just taken over the minority leader's post after the defeat of his friend, then-senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Though Bush talked on the campaign trail about privatizing Social Security , only after he won the election did Democrats realize it would be his top domestic priority.

The day after his 2005 State of the Union address, he toured the country to build support for shifting part of the program into private savings accounts. He chose states that he had won, but which had at least one Democratic senator -- an implied threat that if Democrats didn't come to the bargaining table they'd pay a price at the polls.

To Democrats, it was a shot in the gut -- an attempt to dismantle the New Deal legacy of a Democratic icon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But with memories raw from the 2004 losses, many Democrats were arguing for accommodation, and some analysts warned that sitting out the year's biggest debate could be fatal for the party.

"There's no question that in our caucus, there were a couple of individuals who were prepared to offer alternatives," said Representative Richard E. Neal , a Springfield Democrat who serves on the subcommittee that oversees Social Security. "They thought that we needed a competing view."

Yet Reid and Pelosi resisted those pressures and launched a campaign of their own. They, too, hit the road, with Democratic members of Congress hosting more than 1,000 town-hall meetings on Social Security last year. They coordinated their publicity efforts with Democratic-allied interest groups that also wanted the president's bid blocked.

Last March, Reid persuaded more than 40 Democratic senators to oppose privatization, assuring Democrats of the number they'd need to sustain a filibuster. Pelosi had fewer procedural tools but no less commitment to the cause. One Pelosi aide recalls her giving the same curt response to several colleagues who asked when the party's Social Security plan would be released: "Never. Does never work for you?"

That strategy, of course, meant that Democrats did not seriously engage the president on the issue, despite the looming fiscal challenges faced by the Social Security system as baby boomers begin to retire.

But in the end, Democrats' blocking efforts were so successful that Bush never even introduced a bill. By campaign season, only Democrats were bringing up Social Security private accounts -- as a weapon to use against Republicans. The campaign-style apparatus that defeated Social Security reform was ready to go on behalf of Democratic candidates.

As challenges arose for Republicans -- indictments of House members, the Terri Schiavo affair, Hurricane Katrina, the efforts of a Dubai-controlled company to take over US ports -- Democratic unity left the party well positioned for political gain by keeping the focus on Republican missteps.

Gone were the days in which House Democratic leaders could be wooed into supporting bills, or where a few dozen conservative Democrats could be counted on to vote with Republicans to cut taxes or spending.

That meant every Republican vote was crucial, allowing Democrats to exploit areas of Republican discord and force moderate Republicans into politically difficult votes.

"Disunity had been a hallmark of the Democratic Party, but they disciplined the members, and all the factions within the party came together," said Zelizer, of Boston University.

On Iraq, Democrats never did find a plan they could all agree on. But they did find a single message: They would bring about a change of course.

By Election Day, according to polls, more Americans trusted Democrats on Iraq as well as the war on terror -- eviscerating the Republican Party's hold on national security as a political issue.

Nonetheless, many party leaders privately warn that the Democrats' unity will be severely challenged in the coming months.

But the remarkable success Reid and Pelosi had in bringing together their caucuses bodes well for their ability to govern, said Thomas Downey, a former Democratic House member from New York who is close to Pelosi.

"Keeping people together against something is much more difficult than getting them to stay together to vote for something," Downey said.

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