Theatrics of Bush's Social Security road show clash with reality

April 29, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - A three-ring circus on Social Security reform was on display this week - the first ring in Galveston, Texas, the second outside the U.S. Capitol, the third inside at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee.

In Galveston, ringmaster George W. Bush held one of his final performances in a 60-stops-in-60-days road show peddling his pitch for "personal investment accounts" bankrolled by Social Security payroll taxes.

As always, he preached to a choir of the invited faithful, telling his audience that Americans around the country are waking up to the virtues of his scheme but that the politicians "in Washington, D.C." weren't hearing them.

That observation didn't match recent national polls. The latest Washington Post-ABC News survey, released Tuesday when President Bush was in Galveston, showed backing for his plan had plunged from 56 percent a month earlier to 45 percent and opposition rose from 41 percent to 51 percent.

Those figures provided a celebratory backdrop for the second ring on the Capitol grounds. A big crowd heard a round of Democratic members of Congress deride and denounce Mr. Bush's call for the individual retirement accounts, vowing to "stop privatization" of the prime federal safety net for seniors.

The center ring was inside in the committee room. Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa presided over an ideologically balanced hearing, addressed by witnesses for and against the Bush proposal to bring retirees more effectively into what the president calls "the ownership society."

Mr. Grassley professes to favor private accounts. But he called the session ostensibly to discuss the problem of Social Security solvency amid the ongoing partisan dispute over whether the system is "in crisis," as Mr. Bush has said.

If any clear consensus emerged from the hearing, it was that Mr. Bush's proposal for the solvency problem was no solution at all. Several participants said it would do nothing to address the basic challenge of guaranteeing present retirement benefits as the baby boomer generation begins to form on the receiving line.

Indeed, Democrats on the panel were so rude as to note that the president, beyond his individual accounts idea, had yet to put any plan on the table to ensure future solvency. His challenger in the 2004 campaign, Sen. John Kerry, bluntly asked: "Where's the president's plan? There is no plan from the president."

The tenor suggested that Mr. Grassley realizes that Mr. Bush's individual accounts boat is leaking badly and that it seems likely to sink unless a sharp reversal occurs in public opinion and in Congress. Congressional sentiment clearly is building to put that boat into dry dock and deal first with the solvency issue.

But The New York Times on Wednesday quoted Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York as saying he met with Mr. Bush last week asked him to take the private accounts off the table, and that Mr. Bush replied: "Congressman, I am the president. And private accounts are not coming off the table even if it's the last day I spend in the presidency."

Mr. Rangel's press secretary verified the quote. But reality could make Mr. Bush reconsider. In his road show, he has claimed credit for bringing the solvency issue to national attention, and if his pet sideshow fails, he can always insist that his exhaustive salesmanship did succeed in that regard.

But for now, with the Democrats marching in lockstep against private accounts and with some Republicans also against them or wavering, the Bush ring of the Social Security circus seems to be fading fast from the spotlight.

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

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