Mandate, What Mandate?

The Washington Post offered a glimpse into the future recently when it outlined Republican plans to build on their November election gains and gut Social Security.

The page 4 story by Amy Goldstein, published Nov. 17, quotes White House officials saying they believe the Nov. 5 election results, in which Republicans took back control of the Senate and gained seats in the House, was a mandate to change the nation's Social Security program.

According to the story, Republican candidates did best when they emphasized the creation of individual retirement accounts as the way to save the nation's retirement system. Workers would shift some of their Social Security taxes into the accounts and invest the money in stocks and bonds.

Supporters say privatizing Social Security is the only way to save it, that the coming "baby-boom bubble" will put the system in the red sometime around 2016 and that new ways must be found to provide retirement income to aging Americans.

The plan is a troubling one, because it will expose what is supposed to be a guaranteed retirement income to the vicissitudes of the market -- which, given the volatility of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and other market indicators in recent months, seems a dangerous approach.

Of course, there is no real consensus on the kind of trouble Social Security may face, with opinions ranging from the need for a complete overhaul to avoid bankruptcy to the need to tinker around the edges -- in particular, removal of a cap on taxes paid annually into the system.

Under the current rules, someone earning $200,000 pays the same in payroll taxes as someone earning $84,900, the maximum amount of earnings that can be taxed. Eliminating the cap would affect fewer than 7% of wage-earners -- all of whom are at the upper end of the income strata -- while covering more than three-quarters of the expected shortfall, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute.

While administration officials say no decision on Social Security has been made, the story said advocates of the new retirement accounts "who have been in contact with the White House in recent days" believe most of the administration's economic team "favored swift legislation."

What is important here is not just the desire on the part of the administration to move on Social Security, but the sense that it has a mandate for action -- and the likelihood that the president will use this "mandate" to push an agenda American voters may not have bargained for.

Mandates are tricky things. They are often claimed, but very rarely earned. Ronald Reagan was probably the most popular president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but even he could not be said to have earned a mandate. While he won re-election by a wide margin in 1984, his party never took control of the House of Representatives and he never enjoyed the kind of unbridled authority the Bush team is about to take advantage of.

And what about the Bush team and its mandate? Bush's party now controls all three branches of the national government, but it does so only by the narrowest of margins and only by a handful of votes in a handful of states. (And there is the fact of Bush's contested election, the fact that he won his office only after the US Supreme Court killed a Florida recount.)

Let's look at the numbers: Republicans won 21 of the 32 senate races contested (the Louisiana race was to be decided by runoff Dec. 7, after my deadline), but only a handful of those races were considered up for grabs and only in four -- Minnesota, Georgia, Missouri and Arkansas -- did control change.

And two of the races were essentially dead heats: Republican Jim Talent beat Democratic incumbent Jean Carnahan by 23,531 votes in Missouri and Republican John Sununu beat Democrat Jeanne Shaheen by 18,817 votes in New Hampshire. That means control of the Senate hinged on a total of 42,348 votes -- less than 2% of the combined votes in those races and less than 1% of those states' combined populations.

The point is not to dismiss the historic significance of what the Republicans accomplished -- it was only the second time since 1934 that the president's party has expanded the number of seats it held in Congress during a mid-term election (Bill Clinton's Democrats accomplished the same in 1998). And Bush is popular.

But that does not mean the GOP's agenda is also popular. Most analysts doubt that the president and his fellow Republicans will push hard to the right, fearing the kind of backlash that chased Newt Gingrich from office and broke the Contract with America.

But Bush also knows on which side his bread is buttered -- and who pays for the butter. That could mean new tax cuts for the rich, new bankruptcy laws that favor lenders, restrictions on lawsuits that favor corporations, market-based health care reforms that make it more difficult for average people to get treatment, appointments of conservative judges, a further gutting of what is left of welfare, oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and other disasters -- including so-called Social Security reform.

And given the essential weakness of the Democratic Party, there is no effective counterweight to Bush and his conservative allies in Congress.

That leaves only one path for progressives, according to Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway. Stop relying on the Democrats. He said people need to "take every opportunity to oppose the power structure."

"March on Washington, go on strike, organize a boycott, start a resistance radio station, take to the streets with the anarchists," he wrote after the election. "If you are looking for models, they are all over the rest of the world: the East German Christian opposition to the Honecker police state that led to the toppling of the Berlin Wall, the massive Czech uprising, the South African overthrow of apartheid, the protests in Seattle. Don't wait for the Democrats to do it. Do it yourself. Stand for something."

I couldn't have said it better.

Hank Kalet can be reached via e-mail at

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