Clinton may get away with Social Security cuts ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 01, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The word from the White House that President Clinton is considering putting an ax to Social Security cost-of-living adjustments sounds on first hearing like a major political goof. But it may be an idea whose time has come, even in political terms.

Ever since Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 talked about making Social Security "voluntary" and brought an avalanche of senior-citizen protest down on himself, the program has been considered sacrosanct. Later Republicans, including former President Reagan, made stabs at, or at least floated trial balloons about, tampering with the old-age benefits program, to their political regret.

The one issue on which Democrats could always count on against the Republicans was this one. Time and again in the post-Goldwater years, they exploited senior voters' fears about the sanctity of the program to defeat Republican candidates who gave the slightest sign of messing with it.

So gun-shy did the Republicans become about Social Security that when its future was jeopardized in the early Reagan years, the GOP president backed off coming up with a remedy of his own and instead appointed a bipartisan commission. Only by thus taking partisan politics out of the issue was agreement reached between the Republicans and Democrats, including an increase in the Social Security payroll tax, to keep the system solvent.

The issue has been a frequent whipping boy in states with heavy elderly populations such as Florida, where the fear of any kind of fiddling with Social Security has been a powerful determinant in voting behavior. And although it most often has been used by Democrats evoking memories of Goldwater against Republicans, it has figured in Democratic primary fights as well.

el,.5l Only last year in the Florida presidential primary, Bill Clinton used it against Paul Tsongas, running a television ad that warned voters that Tsongas proposed cuts in "cost-of-living adjustments for older Americans." Clinton aides said later the ad was meant to refer to Medicare, not all of Social Security. But if voters got the wrong impression, well, that wasn't their man's fault.

By and large, however, Republicans have been the principal targets of the fear issue on Social Security. As a result, George Bush in both his 1988 and 1992 campaigns repeatedly reassured elderly voters that he would never, ever, do anything to jeopardize the program.

Clinton in his winning campaign last year also talked of Social Security as if it were untouchable, saying there was "no need to tamper" with it. But he has since raised the possibility of raising the retirement age from 65 to 67, citing actuarial tables, the willingness of older Americans to keep working and the importance of having their experience in the work force.

Now both the White House and deputy budget director Alice Rivlin are saying limiting the so-called COLAs -- automatic increases pegged to inflation -- has not been ruled out as part of Clinton's drive to reduce the federal deficit.

For many senior citizens to whom the monthly Social Security checks are their main sources of income, any move to make any change is fraught with real fear.

The American Association of Retired Persons, which has been built into a huge and powerful pressure group for seniors, already has warned that "freezing COLAs for even one year would result in nearly half a million more individuals of all ages falling below the poverty level."

While Clinton in many ways has sought to remove himself from old liberal Democratic causes, as a candidate last year he talked repeatedly about attacking poverty. So a more likely approach may be greater taxation on Social Security benefits depending on income, thus focusing the burden on better-off seniors.

But just as it took a staunch anti-communist like Richard Nixon to open the door to the communist regime in China, and another like Reagan to achieve arms-limitation breakthroughs with the former Soviet Union, Clinton -- self-proclaimed defender of the little guy -- may be able to bite the bullet on Social Security with limited political loss.

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