President Bush is hawking a remedy for a Social Security malady that won’t develop for decades, yet he insists “the crisis is now.”
The proposal to create private investment accounts has unified Democrats and caused some fretful Republicans to ask why Bush is barreling full speed through what is a political minefield for their party.
It’s not as if Bush doesn’t have other things on his platter. The budget he sent Congress – laced with deep cuts in popular programs – will require intensive attention. And internationally, there’s still the insurgency in Iraq and mounting nuclear tensions with Iran and North Korea.
Bush watchers say his flat-out campaign for Social Security overhaul fits a familiar pattern that he exhibited in pushing three tax cuts and a major education bill through Congress and in invading Iraq without broad international support. He casts his objective as a “crisis,” then tackles it almost singlemindedly.
“He loves to defy the odds, leap tall buildings in a single bound, do what people say can’t be done. He loves that. And he’s feeling his oats right now,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas.
“On the political side, he’s going for broke and the odds for success are low. But if he can pull this off and steal Social Security from the Democrats, he can get a leg up on helping to cement the nation’s political realignment in favor of the Republican Party,” Buchanan said.
Democratic leaders are less charitable.
“We have leaders who love to create crises that don’t exist,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “Social Security isn’t in crisis. For more than 50 years, we’re going to be just fine.”
Acknowledging the hard sell ahead, Bush drew laughter from a North Carolina audience last week when he said he was preparing for “an interesting experience in dealing with the Congress.”
He is barnstorming the country as if there were no tomorrow for Social Security, as if it were near bankruptcy.
Yet his own administration projects insolvency won’t occur until 2042 if no changes are made. Congressional Democrats claim the system is capable of paying full benefits until 2055.
The president’s plan would allow workers under age 55 to divert up to 4 percentage points of their Social Security taxes into private stock and bond investment accounts in exchange for lower guaranteed future benefits.
Democratic critics claim Bush is exaggerating Social Security’s problems just as he overstated Saddam Hussein’s weapons arsenal to justify war in Iraq, inflated the nation’s economic woes to build support for his tax cuts and disparaged rival John Kerry as a risky wartime choice for the nation to bolster his re-election chances.
Framing Social Security’s as a looming crises makes it easier to try to sell a fix, analysts suggest.
“If there’s no problem, there’s no need for a solution,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “There is a style of leadership that takes very strong clear stands, doesn’t express positions with much nuance. There’s no ambiguity there.”
Bush portrays his plan as “an attractive way to build assets” for workers.
But he doesn’t mention that those workers could also see their assets shrink during prolonged market downturns. He also avoids discussing the enormous transition costs, which could exceed a trillion dollars over the first 10 years, or future benefit cuts.
The proposals could become a political liability for Republicans on the ballot in the 2006 midterm elections if Bush fails to convince the public that Social Security overhaul is needed now. They’ve already provided ammunition to Democrats who delight in portraying Republicans as seeking to tamper with the 70-year-old government retirement program.
Bush’s penchant for grand causes “is something in his character. He doesn’t seem to be energized as president unless he has a great moral challenge,” said Allan J. Lichtman, a political historian at American University. “He hopes to replace the New Deal with the `ownership society’ and become the Republican Franklin Roosevelt.”
Charlie Black, a GOP consultant with close White House ties, disputes suggestions that Bush exaggerates problems to be better seen as confronting crises.
“I think the reason he ran for president in the first place is he wanted to do big things,” Black said.
“I visited him in the summer of 1998, when he was still governor of Texas. I said, `If you run, what are you going to run on?’ He sat in his chair and rattled off six things: cut taxes, transform the military, reform education, support faith-based programs, reform Medicare and reform Social Security.”
“Obviously, September 11 changed his agenda, but he’s still trying to get these big things done,” Black said.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.