SOCIAL SECURITY REFORM Ambiguity is Bush's platform safety net

Giving a specific plan would incite criticism in key states.
WASHINGTON -- Even as President Bush has started telling voters that overhauling Social Security would be a key part of his second-term agenda, he is likely to avoid offering specifics before Election Day, according to Bush aides, lawmakers and privatization advocates.
Instead of getting into details, which would almost certainly embroil him in controversy, Bush is campaigning on broad principles for revamping the 70-year-old retirement system in a way that fits his vision for an "ownership society," the sources said.
Bush revised his campaign speech in recent weeks to include a push for changing the program to permit personal investment accounts, a proposal many conservative activists have been hoping for months he would spotlight.
"I'm worried about our Social Security system," he said Wednesday at a stop in Wisconsin. "I'm not worried about it for baby boomers like me. The system is solvent. But if you're a younger worker, I think it's important that you be allowed to have your own personal savings account that you can carry with you throughout your life."
Pleasing age groups
Bush is promising to protect existing benefits for current retirees and others who soon will retire, while holding the line on the paycheck deductions that finance Social Security. But he is reiterating his desire to let younger workers begin using for private investment some of the money they pay to the government for the program.
Purposefully left unanswered are the most divisive questions, such as what fraction of a worker's payroll taxes could go into a private investment account instead of the Social Security trust fund, how the government would pay the estimated $1 trillion in transition costs and how the government would protect retirees whose investments did not turn out well.
Many experts, including some conservatives, also think any meaningful privatization plan eventually would involve some combination of reduced benefits and higher worker contributions. Bush is expected to continue to skirt that issue as well.
Avoiding criticism
Confronting such matters, Republican strategists fear, could make Bush and other GOP candidates vulnerable to attacks in key states such as Florida, where senior voters have a history of punishing candidates who talk of changing Social Security.
"What they're afraid of is that they'd embrace a particular idea, and the other side will demagogue the hell out of it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has introduced legislation to create private accounts based largely on the recommendations of a commission appointed in 2001 by Bush. Graham is working closely with the White House on the issue.
The decision to stick to generalities also reflects the political complexities facing Bush as he tries to outline a domestic agenda for a second four-year term in office. Towering budget deficits resulting in part from his tax cuts have given him little room to maneuver. And what critics see as his confrontational leadership style has fostered implacable hostility among Capitol Hill Democrats, whose support would be critical for anything as substantive as changing Social Security.
The senior sector
Some Republicans are hesitant to act on Social Security because of poll data showing that seniors have been unhappy with Medicare's new prescription drug benefit and have responded to Democrats' charge that the legislation was more of a boon for pharmaceutical companies than beneficiaries.
"The [GOP] leadership gets very nervous about what happens in the marginal [House] districts" when Democrats focus their attacks on Republican stewardship of Social Security and Medicare, said Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Still, advocates of partial privatization said that, presented in the right way on the campaign trail, the plan could appeal to younger voters who worried they would never reap the rewards of the taxes they paid into Social Security.
The advocates said that talking about the proposal in general terms would allow Bush to claim a mandate for change if he won in November.
House realities
But California Rep. Robert T. Matsui, the ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees Social Security funding, said he couldn't foresee his colleagues going along with Bush on creating private accounts -- especially if the president did not address the tough questions surrounding such a move.
"He has an obligation to put down a plan," Matsui said. "To talk about it conceptually is meaningless. We all want to solve the problem and maintain benefits and not increase payroll taxes and make everybody happy. But he can't just say that and expect to get a mandate out of it."
White House officials say they are watching six separate proposals pending in Congress, all of which they say meet Bush's standards for changing the Social Security system.
Still, that offers little clue to what his position in a second term might be, since the bills vary widely -- ranging from so-called "free lunch" plans that envision large personal accounts and no benefit cuts or tax increases, to what experts say are more realistic proposals that would create smaller accounts accompanied by benefit cuts and tax hikes.
White House aides will not discuss the bills in detail.

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