Kerry says Bush plans cuts for Social Security

`Privatization' claim brings sharp denial from president

October 18, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- John Kerry, hitting President Bush hard on a sensitive domestic issue, accused Bush yesterday of secretly plotting to spring a "January surprise" on Americans with a plan to privatize Social Security and cut benefits if he wins a second term.

Bush's campaign fired back immediately at Kerry for the accusations -- which involve an issue that deeply concerns senior citizens -- calling them "misleading senior scare tactics" that show that Kerry "will say anything to get elected."

The president was in Washington taking a break from campaigning, but his surrogates moved quickly to deny the accusation. His campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, called the idea of him "privatizing" the entitlement program "absolutely preposterous."

Bush says he wants to allow people to put a portion of their Social Security benefits in private investment accounts, but he and his campaign have strongly rejected the label of "privatization" to describe the plan.

But Bush was quoted in a New York Times Magazine article published yesterday as telling a group of Republican donors recently that he wants "to come out strong after my swearing-in with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security."

"This may be a good surprise for the wealthiest people and the well-connected in America, but it's a disaster for America's middle class," Kerry said.

The senator's campaign rolled out new television ads that end with an announcer intoning, "The real Bush agenda? Cutting Social Security."

Republicans and Bush campaign officials denied that the president used the word "privatizing," or any variation of it, at the event last month. Some aides said the quote was fabricated.

On CNN yesterday, Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie said the report on Bush's remarks was "secondhand` and "just flat inaccurate."

But Kerry, who has been telling campaign audiences lately that voters "can't afford" another four years of Bush in the White House, seized on the Bush quote yesterday.

The bitter exchange on Social Security came as Kerry began a swing through Florida, where seniors -- a potent voting bloc -- are a key constituency, and where Kerry and Bush are in a dead heat, according to public polls.

New polls show Bush pulling ahead of Kerry in the race, while other surveys have the candidates tied. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Bush leading Kerry among likely voters, 52 percent to 44 percent. An ABC poll conducted Oct. 13-16 showed Bush with a 4-point advantage over Kerry, 50 percent to 46 percent.

The prospect of privatizing the 69-year-old Social Security program, which covers about 152 million workers, is alarming to many senior citizens and others, who worry that such a change could bankrupt federal coffers, leaving benefits and eligibility to be cut.

Bush's allies rushed yesterday to assert that the president is not proposing such changes.

"What the president is talking about, and has talked about from the moment he ran in 2000," Racicot said on Fox News Sunday, "is allowing younger people, younger workers to own a portion of their Social Security and invest it and make decisions."

Bush's aides said the president is committed to tackling the issue of Social Security's insolvency as quickly as he can if he wins a second term.

Kerry has said he will prevent Social Security from going bankrupt -- which government analysts predict will happen in the next 30 to 40 years if nothing is done to prevent it -- by balancing the federal budget.

The president, in his first run for the White House, made bold promises on Social Security. Beyond setting up a commission to come up with proposals, the president was not able to accomplish anything in his term.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported this year that creating Social Security personal retirement accounts could lower benefits for future retirees, and Kerry quoted an estimate by Bush's Council of Economic Advisers that it could cost up to $2 trillion over a decade.

Some analysts worry that older retirees would be hurt most by the creation of Social Security personal accounts, as younger workers who could tolerate more investment risk and were further away from retirement siphoned money from the program by shifting it to individual investments.

Sun staff writer David L. Greene contributed to this article.

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