From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan
Why is the claim that Bush has "raided" Social Security to pay for tax cuts dishonest? The Social Security system started running surpluses—taking in more in payroll taxes than it paid out in benefits—in the late 1980s. It was supposed to be filling up a trust fund to pay for the eventual retirement of the baby boom generation. When the federal government runs a surplus—as it did during Bill Clinton's second term—it's fair to say that the Social Security trust fund is being preserved or protected, even though the extra money it takes in technically goes toward paying down the national debt. Reducing long-term debt strengthens the government's fiscal position for the day when it will have to pay out more in retirement benefits than it collects from payroll taxes. Conversely, when the federal government runs large deficits, it's fair to say that the trust fund is being raided, because Social Security revenues that would otherwise reduce long-term debt are spent instead on the current operations of government. If Bush hadn't secured huge tax cuts (and spending increases), Social Security's future promises would stand a better chance of being honored. By intentionally bringing back huge deficits, Bush has in fact "raided" the trust fund.
But I'll grant your larger point—these ads are largely disingenuous and pretty ugly in terms of the sentiments they convey. Bush did not "support a tax break for exporting jobs." His administration promoted a tax-law change that was intended to level the field for American-based companies competing with foreign firms abroad. More generally, for Kerry and his supporters to talk about the loss of jobs due to outsourcing without reference to the American jobs created both by insourcing and by increased exports is both bad economics and lousy logic. You can't look at just one side of the trade equation; the gains and losses are both products of globalization.
There is also, as you suggest, Will, a streak of xenophobia and isolationism running through all of these spots (though I'll admit that the jobs ad, in which the Chinese lettering on the factory is revealed as the announcer explains that Bush has created lot of new jobs—in China—is also pretty clever). The problem is not just the implicit hostility to workers in developing nations (in "Factory"). It's the assumption (in "$87 Billion") that money spent rebuilding Iraq is wasted because it's not going toward "taking care of America." I remember when Democrats liked foreign aid and argued that poverty in other countries should be a concern of ours. Does Harold Ickes, who raised the cash to pay for these commercials, really think that we shouldn't pay to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan?
Whether or not Kerry's ads—including these non-Kerry Kerry ads—are as bad as Bush's, they are demagogic and convey an economic nationalism that I find repellant. Yet at the same time, I'm relieved that liberals are finally playing hardball and not being patsies for Bush's attacks. I like the joke that Bush is creating jobs in China, even if I think it distorts reality. If I'm not mistaken, you share this sentiment at least a little. As much as you want to be evenhanded and declare a pox on both their houses, you seem slightly pleased that Kerry is running smart, even if he's running ugly.
This time four years ago, I tried to deal with this problem in a piece called "Dilemma of the Ruthless Democrat." Personally, I'm glad that Democrats aren't going to serve themselves up as victims for ruthless Republicans this time around. I plan to continue calling Kerry on his b.s., just as I'll continue to call Bush on his. I know you will, too. But I also hope that Kerry matches Bush slander for slander.
And in fact, I have no doubt that he will.