Are Democratic candidates smearing their Republican adversaries as Social Security privatizers? The corporate media buys the GOP line that Democrats’ attacks are a desperation move and that privatization is so far off the table it’s not worth mentioning. Wrong!

For a president widely characterized as being “adrift” this summer, Obama stirred up quite a fuss with his August 14 radio address, in which he took Republicans to task for supporting Social Security privatization. Here’s what he said:

What we can’t afford to do is privatize Social Security – an ill-conceived idea that would add trillions of dollars to our budget deficit while tying your benefits to the whims of Wall Street traders and the ups and downs of the stock market. A few years ago, we had a debate about privatizing Social Security. And I’d have thought that debate would’ve been put to rest once and for all by the financial crisis we’ve just experienced….

But some Republican leaders in Congress don’t seem to have learned any lessons from the past few years. They’re pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall. It’s right up there on their to-do list with repealing some of the Medicare benefits and reforms that are adding at least a dozen years to the fiscal health of Medicare – the single longest extension in history.

The Wall Street Journal editors, understandably, accused Obama of a bait-and-switch: urging them to work with his deficit commission to cut the national debt and “reform” entitlements, while exploiting their ideological position on Social Security in the upcoming election. But they went farther, accusing him of “bad faith” because

Social Security is less a GOP reform priority than it should be. Republicans never even brought President Bush’s private account plan to the floor in 2005. To the extent these attacks have any basis in reality, they’re targeting Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s “roadmap” — even as Mr. Obama praises him for being serious about the fiscal crisis and knows he’s a member of the deficit commission.

What was much more surprising was that these arguments closely echoed an analysis put forth by Brooks Jackson of the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org shortly after Obama gave his address. Jackson’s findings:

* Few if any Republicans now in Congress have ever pushed for total “privatization” of Social Security. What President Bush proposed in 2005 was to allow workers under the age of 55 to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private accounts. Most of their taxes would have continued to go into traditional Social Security.

* Bush’s proposal to create private accounts had so little Republican support in 2005 — when the GOP controlled both the House and Senate — that it was never introduced as formal legislation. We’ve seen no evidence to suggest the idea is any more popular among Republicans now.

* Only one Republican “leader” is currently pushing publicly for Bush-style private accounts, as part of an overall budget plan. He is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the senior GOP member of the House Budget Committee. His plan currently has only 13 cosponsors, none of them in the GOP House leadership.

FactCheck.org calls Obama’s accusations “misleading,” because most Republican proposals to carve private accounts out of Social Security would only take a portion of workers’ payroll taxes to do so, leaving the rest in the existing system. Besides, the private accounts would be optional. And anyway, few serious players have suggested cutting existing retirees’ benefits. Only younger workers would be at risk.

All this is widely accepted in the corporate media, as the Journal editorial indicates. Even some Democratic pundits worry that Obama – and some of the party’s candidates – are miscalculating and opening themselves to attacks of demagoguery by conflating Republican support for some hard-headed “reforms” of Social Security – in which the GOP may be joined by some Democratic deficit hawks – with advocacy of a non-starter like full-blown privatization.

This analysis is wrong, politically naïve, and oblivious to the nature of the 30-year debate over Social Security.

Let’s start with the obvious misunderstandings. First, there’s the notion that unless a lawmaker proposes full investment of all of a worker’s payroll taxes in private accounts, it doesn’t pass the test to be deemed “privatization.” By this standard, no one in Congress has ever supported such a thing. (So what was all that fuss about during the second Clinton administration?) Yet even partial privatization would blow a huge hole in the program’s finances, that would get worse decade by decade.

Benefits, most likely, would be cut. Workers – those with some disposable income – would be compelled to depend on their private savings. And while most proposals to privatize Social Security – OK, partially privatize it – claim to leave benefits intact for current retirees and workers nearing retirement, this has always seemed more like a come-on than like a real policy proposal. Because it would mean even bigger cuts for the next generation of workers: the same ones Social Security’s critics are supposed to be so concerned about.

Partial privatization has always been understood to be a waystation on the road to a fully individualized national retirement system. Any distinction between the two is a matter of political expediency, not of substance. (Indeed, cutting benefits and raising the retirement age amounts to the same thing, too, because any “reform” that slashes benefits by a third or more, on average, over the next three to four decades will likewise force workers to shift for themselves. The fact that some deficit hawks don’t endorse private account carve-outs is a technicality. Over time, what they propose will still produce a retirement system managed within the private sector.)

Nevertheless, Republicans scoff that when Democratic candidates bring up privatization, it’s “a transparent attempt to distract from their budget busting, job-killing policies that have left voters asking the simple question that Democrats still can’t answer: ‘Where are the jobs,’” as National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Ken Spain recently told the Washington Post.

But it’s not a distraction. What Obama and the Democrats are really saying, although they rarely state it flatly, is that once in power and inclined to act on Social Security, a Republican Congress will almost certainly try to privatize it, because they can’t help themselves. It’s in the party’s DNA now, and has been a central part of its philosophy for a decade at least.

The past three presidential elections, the Republicans have nominated candidates who vocally support private-account carve-outs. (While this was less central to McCain’s platform than Bush’s, his standard line on the subject was that “young Americans ought to … be able to, in a voluntary fashion … put some of their money into accounts with their name on it.”)

That’s unlikely to change in 2012. For example, Newt Gingrich, known to have presidential ambitions, outlines a drastic privatization plan in his latest book, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine.

It’s true that no actual privatization bill ever came to a vote in Congress despite Bush’s 2005 campaign, at taxpayer expense, to push one through. But that was only because the public turned so emphatically against the idea. Powerful congressional leaders including House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas and Senate Finance Committee chair Chuck Grassley tried for months to cobble something together, and only stopped trying when Hurricane Katrina forced Congress to shift focus.

It’s true also that Paul Ryan is the only major figure in Congress pushing a privatization plan, as part of the Ryan Roadmap. But Ryan’s not just anybody. He’s in line to become Budget Committee chair if the Republicans win the House in November, and he’s been relentlessly touted by the party leadership as its best-and-brightest. Meanwhile, the Tea Party movement is nudging the party’s inclinations further in Ryan’s ideological direction. A handful of the GOP’s leading House candidates this year, including several members of its elite Young Guns, have fully endorsed the Roadmap, Amanda Terkel reports on Huffington Post. If the GOP take control, expect the latest release of the Roadmap to gather hundreds more co-sponsors.

None of this is to suggest that the Republicans learned nothing from Bush’s botched privatization campaign (on this, Obama was wrong). Letting the White House lead the way on that one cost the party leadership their best opportunity yet to make the 2001 tax cuts permanent. Now, they may lose some or all of them. The GOP’s first order of business if it retakes the Capitol will be more tax cuts. Item two will be scuttling health care reform. Item three, however, might well be Social Security privatization.

Why is it that FactCheck.org, which supposedly has the resources and the savvy to understand these issues, so readily brands Obama’s warnings about GOP intentions as making “distorted Social Security claims? That’s the subject for another post. But I suspect one reason is that, like much of the corporate media, FactCheck.org fails to understand the Republican Party as fundamentally different in structure from the Democrats: far more top-down in organization, the Tea Partiers notwithstanding, and far more ideologically driven.

For the Washington press corps, much of the time, history doesn’t exist. There are only politicians, and the only matter at hand is the next election. But for one party, at least, ideas matter. Privatization is one of them.