Social Security scheme proves tough sell

February 04, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Watching a president's televised State of the Union report to Congress nowadays requires just as much attention to what's happening on the House floor and in the gallery as to what he's saying.

President Bush's address was notable for its theatrics as much as it was for its substance.

Once again, his Republican Party's members rose on cue, cheered and applauded wildly at each proposal that touched on GOP orthodoxy.

Similarly, most Democrats sat on their hands at the same moments, rising and clapping politely only when the president made nonpartisan observations on such matters as the heavy voter turnout in the Iraq elections on which they agreed or could not afford politically to seem indifferent about.

The Democrats' discipline broke somewhat only when Mr. Bush, reminiscent of his claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, repeated deceptive contentions that the Social Security system "is heading toward bankruptcy."

Some Democrats issued restrained catcalls at his use of figures widely disputed by nonpartisan experts, who say the system will be able to pay full benefits well beyond Mr. Bush's stated red-ink date of 2018 and will not, as he put it, "be exhausted and bankrupt" by 2042. Even a few Republicans stayed seated at these lines.

While refraining from reiterating his repeated contention that the government retirement system is "in crisis," Mr. Bush continued to peddle his plan for partial privatization of the system as its savior, while indicating that he recognizes he has a tiger by the tail in pushing it.

The Democrats' counterattack - that it is folly to encourage young taxpayers to sink some of their guaranteed retirement benefits into an unpredictable stock market - has led the president to shun the word "privatization." Now he insists that his scheme advocates "personal" rather than "private" investment accounts. This from folks who continue to use the derogatory "Democrat Party" in referring to the opposition.

While the prime focus of the president's address was Social Security reform, the theatrics dealt with foreign policy. In the first lady's gallery, two women prominent in the voting in Afghanistan and Iraq sat on either side of Laura Bush, and were introduced by the president.

In a further emotional flourish, he then introduced the parents of a Marine killed in Iraq who sat just behind Mrs. Bush. The honored Iraqi guest turned and hugged the mother, to deafening applause. It was what in the Ronald Reagan years could have been called a Michael Deaver moment, after that administration's resident genius of the photo op.

Unquestionably, this cameo was strong politics, especially with last weekend's impressive voter turnout in Iraq, which ensured the president a rousing reception on entering the House of Representatives. Perhaps because he had devoted his inaugural address so heavily to his justification of the war in Iraq as part of a vision to end tyranny around the world, he subordinated the matter in these remarks to domestic affairs.

But clearly it was Mr. Bush's first-term role as a wartime president, as riddled as it was with post-invasion failures, that brought him re-election. While continuing that role, he pointedly pivoted to domestic reform, with Social Security as the centerpiece.

Accordingly, his State of the Union address contained mostly familiar generalities on how he plans to reform Social Security and what the ramifications would be for the now-targeted taxpayers under 55 years old.

As always, the devil is in the details, and as the president and his aides embark on a massive selling job to Americans to whom Social Security has been a financial safety net for nearly 70 years, the fight over those details will be fierce, with the truth an elusive commodity.

For the Democrats, the debate may be their best opportunity to restore their old reputation as the guardian of the lower and middle classes, who remain the chief beneficiaries of the jewel of the New Deal legacy. But their loss in this fight could open the door to the private "ownership society" that Mr. Bush so fervently seeks.

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

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