- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2000

NEWS ANALYSIS

Reforming Social Security to let workers invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market is George W. Bush's most daring proposal, but his plan has not been given much visibility until now.
Mr. Bush returned to the issue in a major way yesterday, releasing two reports that supported his plan and winning an endorsement from a grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who created Social Security 65 years ago.
Mr. Bush made his plan the central theme of the day, touting it on Regis Philbin's national television show, "Live With Regis," and then discussing it before workers at a manufacturing plant in Cleveland.
The Republican presidential nominee said that if a middle-class couple who joined him on stage in Cleveland were permitted to put 2 percent of their payroll taxes into an investment account, it would give them $130,000 more to use when they retired.
"When you couple that with Social Security benefits, that becomes a powerful nest egg that they can call their own. That $130,000 is no longer a government program; it's somebody's portfolio, it's somebody's asset. It's something you can pass on from one generation to the next. It's your property."
Mr. Bush brought along Tony Roosevelt, a grandson of the New Deal president, who said that Mr. Bush's plan reforms the program "in a way our 32nd president would approve."
The Bush campaign also released a new study by Economic Security 2000, a nonpartisan organization that supports personal accounts, which gave the Bush plan high marks, calling it "bold and forward looking."
The study criticized Vice President Al Gore's alternative plan, which would keep Social Security as it is, but offer a separate "Retirement Savings Plus" plan for lower-to middle-income workers that would give them limited, matching grants to encourage savings.
Outside of his $1.3 trillion income-tax cut plan, no other proposal Mr. Bush has made thus far is more sweeping or would affect more people. It would fundamentally change the last of the big New Deal-era reforms by letting people voluntarily invest part of their Social Security taxes in their own mutual stock or bond fund portfolios as part of a long-term plan to boost worker returns on their taxes and keep the program solvent.
"You are really talking about reshaping the cornerstone of the welfare state," said Marshall Wittmann, analyst at the Hudson Institute, a public-policy think tank.
But supporters said yesterday that Mr. Bush has devoted little serious attention to his plan outside of briefly mentioning it in his daily stump speeches references that are rarely reported by the daily press.
"We've been focusing on other issues, like tax cuts, Medicare, education and prescription drugs," said Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan. "He's been mentioning it in his stump speeches and other discussions." Still, he added, "We haven't done it for a while."
When was the last time Mr. Bush dealt at some length with his proposal? "Let me get back to you on that," Mr. Sullivan said.
Until now, Mr. Bush's reticence to more aggressively promote his Social Security reform plan has frustrated supporters of the idea, many of whom have been drawn to Mr. Bush's candidacy because of his support for creating private retirement accounts.
"Social Security reform is not something you can do by halves. You can't just mention changing the world's biggest government programs without making it a centerpiece of your campaign," said Andrew Biggs, a Social Security analyst at the Cato Institute.
"Until now, he's stated his policy, but he hasn't actively gone out and argued for it," he said.
"Part of it may be to use it as an issue in which they could inoculate themselves, but not an issue on which they could go on the offensive," Mr. Biggs said. "I think that's a misjudgment."
When Mr. Bush formally announced his plan in May, Mr. Gore aggressively attacked his proposals, but with little effect at the time.
Independent polls have long shown strong public support for the idea of creating private Social Security accounts. An ABC-Washington Post poll conducted earlier this month found that 59 percent of registered voters supported the plan. A Zogby poll of likely independent voters in July showed that 72 percent also favored the idea.
"Bush is taking the offensive on this not a minute too soon. I suspect that Bush's Social Security plan will be the focus of the Gore attack in October," Hudson Institute's Mr. Wittmann said.
The Gore campaign is expected to mount a major offensive against the Bush plan, especially in key tossup states like Florida, where a large retiree population could decide the outcome of the election.
"There is an enormous upside on this issue for Bush, particularly among younger workers who know their financial interests are not going to be protected under the present system," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
"It's very encouraging that when Mr. Gore first leveled his attacks on Bush's plan back in May that they did not get much traction," Mr. McInturff said.
"This issue could end up being the Battle of Gettysburg of this campaign and whoever wins could end up getting the capital," Mr. Wittmann said.
Sean Scully contributed to this article.

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