- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

In late spring 1940, British leader Winston Churchill turned a potentially devastating battlefield debacle into an inspired cry for national unity. Escaping ruinous military defeat on the beaches of Dunkirk in northeastern France allowed the British to regroup and, along with its allies, ultimately win World War II.

Over the past two years, and again in this Congress, Republicans made a pincer move of their own by offering major policy initiatives on two signature Democratic policy initiatives — Medicare and Social Security. Viewed as the architects and benefactors of both, no two entitlements have been more identified with the Democratic Party.

Yet with the passage of the Medicare Modernization Act in the last Congress and the Social Security reforms promised by President Bush this year, Republicans have an opportunity to create their own bona fides on these two explosive issues. Losing its stranglehold as the political patrons of these entitlements would devastate Democrats. That’s why their leaders in Congress fight relentlessly to discredit the recently passed Medicare legislation and will draw a line in the sand on Social Security, battling the president at every turn. No debate will likely pack more partisan ferocity this year. Maintaining the political edge on these two issues is the Democrats’ Dunkirk.

But preserving political advantage won’t be easy. With Republican majorities in the House and Senate, and Mr. Bush in the White House, successful changes to either entitlement program will inure to the Republican Party’s benefit. Democrats recognize this. That’s why their partisan political consultants tell them they can’t just try to improve Republican ideas; they have to discredit and destroy them.

Proposed Republican reforms also fit well thematically with other macro-societal and economic trends — namely, replacing highly regulated, one-size-fits-all government programs with policies encouraging choice, competition and individual empowerment. The Medicare law certainly injects a modicum of consumer-directed health care and incentives for private-sector involvement in this 40-year-old government-run program. And the concept of personal accounts in Social Security is a clear way to infuse more choice to this government retirement program.

The changes also signal a fundamental public-policy sea change. “Reforming both programs holds the promise of redefining the relationship between citizens and their government in a positive way for Republicans. That’s huge,” a Republican aide told me.

Yet Republicans need to also proceed with a blend of conviction and caution on both of these reforms because change is two-edged political cutlery. “We could risk the majority in Congress if we don’t handle this issue the right way,” an administration official told me. “But we could also lock it in for generations if we do it right.” But change can be scary. Particularly for senior citizens, or those near retirement age, who have contributed regularly and now expect predictable benefits. If the Republican Party’s rhetoric about reform becomes tantamount to a “grand social experiment,” seniors might get turned off, opting for more of the safety and security of what they know. Reform cannot be an end unto itself, but rather a logical vehicle to a strengthened and more secure retirement health and savings programs.

And it’s these very Republican-reform ideas on which the Democrats will attempt to build a rhetorical beachhead, mounting the political equivalent of the spirit of Dunkirk. Democrats and their outside allies are poised to pounce and fight, no doubt charging that “radical” Republicans are engaged in a “risky scheme” to “destabilize” and “privatize” Social Security and Medicare.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, animus is not an alternative to Republican policy. As Majority Leader Tom DeLay suggested last week in a House floor speech, the Democrat’s policy enterprise is bankrupt. “The party that was once an idealistic, forward-looking policy colossus (that advocated) the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the Great Society, the space program and civil rights … is hard pressed to find a single positive substantive idea.

The 109th Congress may amount to a political Dunkirk for the Democrats. But escaping defeat will require more than a war of words. A cavalry of positive ideas is needed for Democrats to escape catastrophe, because lord knows there’s no Churchill on their horizon.

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