Bush grabs `third rail' with both hands

May 17, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Ever since the late Barry Goldwater proposed making Social Security voluntary, the hallowed federal system of old-age benefits has been known as the third rail of American politics. That is, like the power source on railroad and subway tracks, if you touch it, you'll be instantly fried.

Well, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has grabbed it with both hands in his campaign proposal to save the system by proposing that Americans be able to invest a portion of their Social Security funds in private accounts. While Governor Bush is vague on details, he is embracing a favorite Republican solution to the system threatened by the approaching eligibility of the baby-boom generation.

That smacking sound you may hear is Vice President Al Gore licking his chops over the prospect of scaring current and future Social Security recipients with the Bush proposal. Democrats have been using the issue effectively against Republicans ever since Goldwater first handed them the opportunity.

Over the years, Republicans burned by touching the third rail have learned to stay away from it. But as polls have shown increasing concern among young Americans that they will never see a Social Security check of their own upon retirement, the temptation to come up with a popular solution apparently is too much for Governor Bush to resist.

Mr. Gore has already pounced. His talent for exploiting an opponent's real or manufactured political vulnerability was amply demonstrated in his ambush of rival Bill Bradley on the issues of health care and farm policy in this year's Democratic presidential primaries, and is on display again.

As might be expected, Mr. Gore is painting the Bush initiative as a threat not only to the Social Security system itself, but also to the humming national economy that is his own best ticket to election in November. Governor Bush, he charges, is "rolling the dice" with the old-age benefits program on which millions of elderly Americans depend, conjuring up a picture of recipients gambling with their retirement in a volatile stock market.

In this effort, Mr. Gore is greatly assisted by the recent ups and downs in the market after years of amazing growth, with only occasional blips. Now the financial journals are full of cautionary articles about investment that provide plenty of fuel for Mr. Gore's dire predictions about turning Social Security into market-playing.

The fact is that Social Security has always been a crazily bouncing political football that Democrats have loved to kick around to the detriment of Republicans, who have seemed unable to keep their hands off it. It constantly plagued Ronald Reagan, from his famous 1964 speech in which he echoed Goldwater's remarks about what to do with the program to his madcap scheme as a presidential candidate in 1976 to save $90 billion by transferring social-welfare programs to the states.

The football bounced up again against Mr. Reagan in 1981 when his secretary of health and human services, Richard Schweiker, proposed cutting Social Security benefits $46 billion over five years. That one was promptly slapped down by the Republican-controlled Senate by a 96-0 vote. And although a bipartisan commission in the Reagan years gave the program a lease on life, Mr. Reagan was never able to dispel effectively the notion that he wanted to kill Social Security.

In 1984, in Mr. Reagan's preparations to debate Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, his strategists worked overtime trying to get the president to steer clear of Social Security. But he was so irritated at the way the Democrats relentlessly cast him as a foe of the program, and Medicare as well, that when Mr. Mondale told the television audience that Mr. Reagan had proposed a 25 percent cut in Social Security in 1981, Mr. Reagan fell right into the trap, trying to explain and only digging himself a deeper hole.

To this day, Republicans remain intimidated by the Social Security issue, and Governor Bush is taking a major political gamble in taking it on so conspicuously.

In the months ahead, he will be selling his plan amid warnings of dire consequences from Mr. Gore that it will imperil not only tomorrow's security for the elderly but today's economic good times for everybody. It figures to be an extremely hard sell.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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