GOP Agenda Reform: What Happened to Social Security and Marriage Protection?

Last Tuesday, during his first solo press conference since May, President Bush made an unusually candid acknowledgement:  his campaign to reform Social Security is going nowhere.

Bush’s admission – overshadowed in the media by his comments on Katrina and new Supreme Court Nominee Harriett Miers – that “there seems to be diminished appetite in the short term,” for restructuring the pensions system, finally confirmed what administration and congressional leaders had been whispering for months: despite spending heaps of political capital to build public support for the president’s chief second term domestic priority, Social Security reform is now dead.  

The unfortunate demise of Social Security reform should come as no surprise given the public’s misunderstanding of – and opposition to – personal accounts.  The real surprise Tuesday was the president’s announced list of legislative priorities for the remaining three years of his presidency. 

Naturally, he talked about supporting U.S. troops in Iraq, rebuilding from Katrina and addressing tight energy supplies.  But he also mentioned some relatively trivial items like congressional action on steroid abuse in baseball and the process he’ll use to determine the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, a position that is – by my last check – still occupied.  Conspicuously absent from the president’s “to do” list was any mention of advancing a federal marriage amendment.

It was only a year ago that same-sex marriage was at the forefront of the national political stage.   As the elections loomed, poll numbers showed intense public opposition to same-sex marriage and majority support for a federal marriage amendment.  On Election Day, all eleven state amendments passed comfortably, most by overwhelming margins.  And President Bush’s narrow victory was partially the result of his bold call for Congress to “promptly pass, and send to the states for ratification,” a federal amendment, in addition to John Kerry’s chronic vacillating on the issue.     

Since then, two more state marriage amendments have been enacted, and polls show continued public support for a federal marriage amendment, especially in the wake of a federal judge’s recent overturning of Nebraska’s marriage amendment, which in 2001 gained the approval of 70 percent of Nebraskans.  

Despite the perfect storm of judicial activism and vast public support for protecting marriage, a federal marriage amendment inexplicably continues to gather dust at the bottom of the president’s agenda.

In January, when asked about the prospects of a constitutional amendment, Bush simply shrugged and said it didn’t have enough votes, and “until that changes, nothing will happen in the Senate,” thus implying that there is nothing he can do.  Since then, Bush has made no attempt to reassess the viability of an amendment. 

While it is true that a federal marriage amendment does not yet have the support it needs to pass the Senate, neither did Social Security reform but that didn’t stop the president from spending enormous amounts of political capital to try and win over leery lawmakers and a reluctant public on personal accounts.

In truth, the reason marriage amendments have had the overwhelming support of the public in states as diverse as Michigan, Oregon and Utah is the same reason the public is skeptical of personal accounts.  To most Americans, same-sex marriage represents an assault on an institution that has provided security and order to families and society for millennia.  Americans understand that children fare best when raised by a mother and father, and have witnessed the deleterious consequences for children when the loving care and unique abilities of either is missing from the family unit.

Social Security has brought a similar sense of protection and order to America.  To many, personal accounts represent the abandonment of society’s obligation to the elderly and infirm, and the infusion of an unacceptable degree of risk and uncertainty into their retirement calculations.

My personal accounts/same-sex marriage comparison can only be taken so far, of course.  Same sex marriage is objectively wrong, while personal accounts may constitute an improvement for a pensions system in disarray.  The point is that the public opposes both of them on essentially the same grounds.  Yet, while the president felt justified in spending a great deal of his political capital trying to win over Americans on personal accounts, he remains convinced that protecting marriage is hopeless.

It would be heartbreaking if the legal definition of marriage were to change forever on the watch of perhaps the most pro-marriage president of our time.  On the other hand, if the president were to spend as much time securing a federal marriage amendment as he has on Social Security reform, he would not only be able to address an issue close to the hearts of many Americans, and especially his increasingly disenchanted base, but also help revive an institution in even worse shape than our pensions system.