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Archive for Sunday, March 20, 2005

Missteps mar Social Security plan

March 20, 2005

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President Bush doesn't always accept Washington's traditional wisdom. When pundits advised him to go slowly after his narrow 2000 victory, he ignored them, claimed a mandate and won enactment of a sweeping tax cut and a major education program.

When questions were raised about his move to the right, instead of toward the center, he persisted and won a second term.

Those experiences and his natural self-confidence may have convinced him that he could reach his top second-term goals by again flouting conventional practice. But events are proving that sometimes conventional is right.

Critics of his Iraq strategy said he would pay a price for ignoring some allies, failing to develop an exit strategy and making inadequate postwar plans. So far, they are correct, although there's increasing hope for a stable democracy there.

On Social Security, however, prospects seem more doubtful, in part because the president failed to heed some basic political rules:

l He failed to make his plan to transform the system a more explicit part of his 2004 re-election campaign. Although he claims his victory provided a mandate for action, he spoke mainly in vague generalities of allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes "in a personal account."

And while he noted that some workers worried whether Social Security "will be there when they need it," he never issued the dire warnings he has stressed recently.

l He was unable to control the Social Security agenda by placing too much emphasis on private accounts while downplaying the reality that they would require massive borrowing and benefit cuts or tax increases. Critics who charged that private accounts would destroy Social Security have done more to set the agenda, despite Mr. Bush's many speeches.

Strengthening their position is the administration's absence of a specific plan, which has deprived his supporters of details to counter the critics.

l He has been unable to connect his stress on private accounts with his concerns about the system's long-term viability and even conceded at Wednesday's news conference that "personal accounts do not solve the issue."

He has played down the fact that private accounts mainly help the system's long-term financial prospects by cutting future guaranteed benefits.

l He forgot that nothing in politics occurs in isolation. Campaigning in 2002 against conservative Democrats who helped pass his tax cuts explains their reluctance to back this far more controversial proposal.

Similarly, his failure to make a serious effort to cut the budget deficit leaves some conservative Republicans concerned about creating a system of private accounts that requires more borrowing. Some feel they were burned when the administration understated the cost of drug benefits for Medicare recipients.

l He talked of building bipartisan support but stressed the aspect of the plan least likely to get it. Also, he allowed insufficient weight to the reality that, given a now-or-later choice on a long-term problem, Congress' natural inclination is later.

All of these factors help explain why support for Mr. Bush's position has gone down, not up, since he launched his effort in his State of the Union address. This has strengthened the hand of the Democrats, who remain united against private accounts.

Yet, as the president made clear Wednesday, the battle isn't over because, beyond the disagreements on private accounts, many members of both parties recognize that sooner or later they must do something to strengthen Social Security's long-term viability.

Whether the answer is sooner may depend on whether congressional GOP leaders and the White House decide they would be better off politically next year either accusing the Democrats of resisting needed change or passing a less far-reaching measure that lets them say they started to solve the problem.

Conventional wisdom says the former. But Mr. Bush is clearly not yet ready to do that.

-- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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