The Oval: On the Social Security Battlefield

The more you hear White House officials talk about Social Security, the more it sounds like Iraq. Of course it's not a violent, bloody conflict leading to huge loss of life and limb. But the political strategy and the test of leadership carry the same mix of calculated risks and reckless gambles, of stubbornness and compromise.

First the strategy. It may look chaotic on the ground, with no one really in charge. But that chaos is something the White House claims to be happy with, not unlike the giant shake of the chessboard in the Middle East. "This is a complicated issue, with a complicated legislative strategy, particularly in the sense that there's no vote set on a specific plan," said a senior White House official. "You're going to have this kind of churning going on in the process. You've got to expect chairmen of committees to explore a lot of different things. We're not going to hyperventilate every time there's a comment from a congressman."

That may be wishful thinking, given the depth of the churning among Republicans and the slide in the polls on private investment accounts. Maybe it's not really democracy in action but opposition in motion. But President George W. Bush's advisers believe the messy process of debate will itself lead to the solution with broadest support.

Next, the leadership question. One of the Bushies' greatest talents is to appear resolute throughout, while preparing to compromise all along. In Iraq that meant pushing out the United Nations before inviting them in, and disbanding the army before reconstituting another one. It also meant wasting time and money on a dysfunctional occupation before celebrating the emergence of an elected Iraqi government. Where President Bush has been consistent is maintaining troop levels in Iraq since the invasion--no small feat--while constantly shifting his policies both inside Iraq and with the outside world.

Social Security is another exercise in resolute compromise. Last week the president said he supported personal accounts as an "add-on" to Social Security, using Democratic language for accounts that would not be funded by diverting payroll taxes. White House aides said the term wasn't meant to signal any shift in policy, just as they did when Treasury Secretary John Snow suggested the administration might consider such accounts. That may be true, but the comments still test the water of what's acceptable inside Washington and signal a readiness to negotiate without conceding an inch of policy. By their own admission, White House officials say nothing has been ruled out--except for a rise in taxes. And even that was compromised when the president raised the possibility of lifting the cap on payroll taxes.

Even the strict controls on Bush's road show are loosening up. When the president arrives in Memphis, Tenn., on Friday for his latest "Conversation on Social Security," his audience could be slightly more diverse than usual. The White House, which has faced criticism for its tightly held ticketing policies, will issue an unspecified number of tickets for Friday's event through Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr.'s office. Bush has taken his road show to the doorsteps of other Red State Democrats, but this is the first time a member of the opposing party has been allotted tickets for constituents. At other events, the White House has distributed tickets through local GOP congressman, the local Republican Party, chambers of commerce and other business groups.

Just don't expect Ford, who opposes the president's plan for private accounts, to get a huge block of seats. About 2,000 people are expected to attend the Memphis event, and about half of those tickets have already been doled out by GOP Sens. Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander. Meanwhile, the White House, as it has at other events, plans to invite several hundred local supporters, including donors and campaign volunteers.

Is It Time to Party Yet?

How happy is the Bush administration at the sight of democratic change in the Middle East? That's not an easy question to answer in public. For starters, there's the small problem of not knowing how the process will develop in the region. Then there's the added difficulty of deciphering where Washington stands on changes in the region. Inside the White House, for instance, the president's aides are in full gloating mode about the critics who said it would never happen. But inside Condoleezza Rice's State Department, there's a lot more caution about how (and whether) the United States should intervene.

Officials from Coalition countries inside Iraq say their meetings inside the White House have taken on a rare mood of celebration in recent days, following the anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon. Administration officials even say they were pleased with the pro-Syrian demonstrations this week, because the protestors were waving Lebanese flags (not Syrian or Hizbullah flags). "We believed that there was a great desire for more democracy and more participation on the part of people in the Middle East, and the notion that there wasn't any interest in the Arab world was simply false," said one senior administration official. "I think what we're seeing now is that that view was correct."

Never mind the question of whether democratic governments in the region will be hostile to the United States and its allies. For now, the Bushies believe they can now declare victory over their political enemies at home. Who Vets the Vetter?

The White House ethics lawyer in charge of vetting Bernard Kerik's nomination for Homeland Security chief has left her post. Nanette Everson, who joined the White House at the height of the Enron scandal, resigned in late February. A White House spokesman says Everson had already indicated her plans to leave well before the Kerik dustup, indicating that she wanted to spend more time with her family. Her replacement is Richard Painter, a University of Illinois law professor who has been an outspoken advocate against corporate fraud.

No doubt the White House also picked up on a little interview Painter gave The Christian Science Monitor last year about the ethics of Vice President Dick Cheney's duck-hunting trip with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Critics had said Scalia should recuse himself from weighing in on a court case determining whether Cheney should divulge the names of energy company representatives he met with while drawing up the administration's energy policy. Painter told the paper that Scalia's trip with Cheney "might not have been the smartest thing to do" but one duck hunt wasn't enough to justify recusal. "There is no flat prohibition on contacts between a litigant and a judge in a purely social setting," Painter said.