Sales job on Social Security

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- That was some educational "forum" that President Bush held the other day on his plan for partial privatizing of Social Security. My dictionary's definition of a forum is "an assembly for the discussion of questions of public interest," which implies an exchange of views.

But just as in similar Bush forums on the campaign trail last year, this one was a carefully orchestrated echo chamber. It was designed to peddle his idea of letting you put a portion of your Social Security taxes into a stock market that has as many ups and downs as an old Coney Island roller coaster.

A few citizens were flown in from such venues as New Jersey, Utah and Washington state to agree that it's a dandy idea. Mr. Bush tipped his hand that they were pre-selected by telling the audience: "I think you'll find their stories interesting. I certainly did, when we had a little discussion a little bit ago."

As part of his educational effort, the president told younger attendees that the Social Security system "will be flat bust, bankrupt" unless Congress makes changes -- a contention that many experts in the government and Congress, including Republicans, flatly rebut.

It's true, they acknowledge, that by 2018, payroll taxes no longer will cover the total cost of Social Security benefits for the growing older generation. But the Social Security trust fund, held in Treasury bonds, has $1.5 trillion in reserves. That's enough, they say, to pay full benefits at least until 2042 and at least 70 percent of promised benefits thereafter.

But we know how this president can elevate a problem into a supposed crisis and sell it to the American people. He did it in marketing his invasion of Iraq by shouting about weapons of mass destruction; the administration has given up looking for them.

He also has proved himself a master at persuading average Americans to vote against their own self-interests, getting them to swallow his huge tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy. This president of privilege has rendered inoperable the old political axiom that people can be relied on to vote their pocketbooks.

During his Social Security forum, Mr. Bush called on the owner of a private ambulance service, Scott Ballard from Washington, who obligingly compared putting some Social Security payroll taxes into a personal investment account with his company's 401(k) retirement plan. Referring to his employees, Mr. Ballard said, "Once they start seeing something on paper, saying, 'Oh, that's mine,' and it's been in there a few years and they start to see it build, they become more interested in it, and they start doing whatever they can to manage it and make it grow so it's there when they retire."

The president loved that answer. He said 401(k) plans promote one of his pet ideas -- "an ownership society" that would be further advanced by his proposed personal investment accounts. He didn't point out, though, that employers contribute to 401(k) plans and that such plans don't withdraw money from the Social Security system at the expense of other recipients' future benefits.

Mr. Bush's mixture of good-natured ribbing of his visitors with oversimplified explanations of his solution to the Social Security "crisis" concluded with a recognition that "it's going to require bipartisan cooperation." Members of Congress "who will work, constructively work, with us will be able to look back and say, 'I did my duty,'" he said.

But the president's notion of bipartisan cooperation in his first term more often than not was accepting his solution to problems with little or no input from critics. Not only Democrats but a number of Republicans in Congress are questioning the urgency and the merits of his proposal to solve the Social Security problem.

His determination to push hard for partial privatization is more likely to invite tough Democratic opposition to protect a program that has always borne a Democratic trademark. Proposing a radical change in it could be political overreaching, and just the opening the Democrats desperately need to re-establish their old identity as the party of the average worker.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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