The Bush road show drones on

April 06, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - If politics were show business, you could say that President Bush's planned 60-day road tour to sell the diverting of Social Security taxes into the stock market is now into its second act.

Mr. Bush resumed the second half of his Social Security traveling show in West Virginia yesterday before taking an intermission to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Rome.

He did so with still another of his repetitively boring pitches before another meticulously crafted "town meeting" of pre-selected guests who offer no dissent from his scheme.

Whoever said there are no second acts in life could have been talking about this rerun of Mr. Bush's approach to "educating" the American people about what he says is a "crisis" in Social Security solvency. This second act is just like the first.

At the halfway mark, the polls - and the wavering of unconvinced fellow Republicans in Congress - suggest this preaching to the choir has been a flop. The reason may well be that the Bush road show has been so short on education and so long on snake-oil salesmanship that even the faithful are waffling.

For openers, while the president makes his pitch in the context of the approaching insolvency of Social Security, he has acknowledged what critical Republicans as well as Democrats have pointed out - that his private or "personal" accounts are merely a sideshow.

That is, enabling taxpayers to invest part of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market does not address the approaching shortfall in funds available to prospective retirees, the timing of which remains in wide dispute.

Yet Mr. Bush, at every staged event of his costly itinerant circus, peddles this idea as critical, even as he repeats projections about when the shortfall will occur and how large it will be. They run counter to those of the independent Government Accountability Office and most other nonpartisan calculations.

According to Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Mr. Bush held a dozen Social Security rallies in the first month, Vice President Dick Cheney four more and Mr. Snow another 10. On top of that, according to the Republican National Committee, GOP House members conducted more than 500 similar "town meetings" in their districts over the Easter recess.

But not all of these congressional meetings have been echo chambers like those Mr. Bush and other administration officials figures have been holding.

Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a moderate Republican who had indicated support for the personal accounts, ran into heavy criticism of the partial privatization plan at a meeting in the town of Darien. As quoted in The Advocate of Stamford, Mr. Shays said: "I am not going to impose my beliefs on Americans if they don't buy off onto it, because this is too huge a program."

Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, chairman of the Finance Committee, which handles Social Security legislation, traveled home to Iowa with Mr. Bush last week, having said he didn't believe a bill could be passed this year. Afterward, apparently under White House pressure, he reported he will hold hearings this month.

While the president's salesmanship may have focused a brighter spotlight on the insolvency problem, his stock market investment scheme appears actually to have been a diversion, stirring division in his own party.

There is no sign that Mr. Bush's road show, to be resumed in a state near you when he returns from Rome, will have any major change in script or cast of characters, regardless of how it is playing in the country, beyond its invitation-only audiences.

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

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