- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2001

You would think the Democratic Party would be feeling quite chipper at the prospect of President Bush tackling Social Security reform this fall. After all, for half a century Democrats have been playing the cat to the Republican mouse when Social Security has been the political bait of the season. The poor Republican mouse has always been swatted unmercifully before scurrying back into its hole. But in the past few weeks the Democratic cat has looked puzzled and in ill-humor as Mr. Bush methodically circles the prize. And it is the Republican mouse whose smile lingers through the long August break.

Nothing brings out the snarling, dark side of a political party more surely than when it finds itself trapped on the wrong side of an issue shift. And that is where the Democrats find themselves on Social Security. As the Depression-era Roosevelt Democrats increasingly are passing on to their reward, and the Boomers and Generation X come into the fullness of their voting years, the seemingly timeless game of scaring the old folks about Social Security has outlived its time.

As the younger voters, who believe they are more likely to see a UFO than a Social Security retirement check, become the new political coin of the realm, the first party to come up with a rational way to protect Social Security is likely to win their votes for a disconcertingly long time. And, the Democrats have suddenly realized that Mr. Bush and the Republicans seem to be that party.

Mr. Bush's bipartisan Social Security Commission will report back by the end of the year with the fairly obvious solution of permitting every American to invest, under carefully regulated conditions, part of their Social Security payments into the safest stocks and bonds which historically have yielded three or four times the return promised under the existing method.

With more than half of all Americans currently invested in the stock market (up from only 15 percent just 20 years ago), it's not surprising that almost 60 percent of the public approves of the Bush proposal.

Therein lies the Democrats' problem. Because they fear that they can no longer scare enough of the public by twisting the facts, they have reverted to the simple, if desperate, recourses of name calling and guilt by association. The rather unlikely target of their venom is that terrifying beast the Cato Institute.

For those of you who are not deep policy wonks, the Cato Institute is one of the major think tanks in Washington that adheres to Libertarian free markets and free choices. It also happens to have been studying, since 1979, the ideas currently being considered by Mr. Bush's commission. As the intellectual pioneers of this reform concept, the Cato Institute has received delegations from 40 countries including Canada, Russia, Germany, Egypt, Japan, China and Mexico wishing to study its findings.

The Cato method of Social Security reform was successfully applied in Chile, whose labor minister at the time of the reform, Jose Pinera, has become the co-director of its Social Security Project. Argentina, Peru and Colombia have already undertaken similar reforms. In 1994 the World Bank endorsed the soundness of the Chilean/Cato reform method.

And yet, because two of Cato's staff Social Security specialists have joined the Bush's commission staff, Democratic Party loyalists are planning to apply Bill Clinton's patented smear campaigns of personal destruction, not against a person this time, but against an organization the Cato Institute.

Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey two longtime left-wing policy operatives closely associated with the unions, Sen. Ted Kennedy and with former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg have been contacting columnists and reporters to push the message that Mr. Bush's commission (co-chaired, incidentally, by that notorious Republican sympathizer former Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan) has become "a tool of the Cato Institute." On June 11, during one of the commission's meetings, they briefed the press on this "charge."

On July 24, Democratic Rep. Robert Matsui his party's point man assigned to kill the bipartisan commission findings also held a briefing during a commission meeting and also accused that commission of being "a tool of the Cato Institute."

This week, they drew first media blood in the liberal magazine New Republic, which ran a tendentious article, "In the Tank," that portentously croaked: "If the public thinks Cato is really running the commission, the crusade to privatize Social Security is probably dead."

This fall we can expect to hear Democrats such as Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. Charles Schumer calling for congressional hearings on the Cato Institute. James Carville will be on "Geraldo" shrieking about the blood-sucking Cato Institute. Small children will cling to their nanny's skirt, and the sweating hands of brave Marines will grip their .45s at the mention of the word.

Well, maybe. But, while I am never one to underestimate partisan cynicism or public credulity, I think Mr. Bush's opponents would be better-off actually proposing their solution to the problem. Saying "boo" to the old folks has become a sucker's game. You could ask President Gore.

E-mail: [email protected]

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