- The Washington Times - Monday, June 11, 2001

A bipartisan, 14-member commission appointed by President Bush will hold its first meeting today to discuss how to partially privatize Social Security by letting workers invest some of their payroll taxes in their own stock and bond portfolios.
The commission begins its deliberations at a time when polls show that a broad majority of Americans — 100 million of whom invest in the stock market — like the idea of reaping a much richer return on their investments in the financial markets over their working lives than the 1 percent or 2 percent return that most workers can expect to receive from Social Security.
Mr. Bush has asked the bipartisan commission, co-chaired by former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Democrat, and Dick Parsons, co-chief operating officer of AOL-Time Warner and a Republican, to come up with a detailed plan this fall to show how his voluntary, personal retirement account proposal can be implemented.
Policy strategists who are advising the administration on the issue say that, when the report comes out, Mr. Bush plans to take it on the road to build public support for the idea, as he did with his tax-cut plan, which he signed into law last week.
"He is very engaged in the issue and determined to do it. Some Republican leaders like Trent Lott have been urging him to go slow on the issue, but hes overruled his political people on the Hill," said Michael Tanner, a senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute, which supports Mr. Bushs proposal and has influenced his thinking on the issue. Two of Catos top officials have been hired by the commission.
"Personal retirement accounts are very popular, especially with younger voters," pollster John Zogby said. "The poll I did in February found that 71 percent favored private individual retirement accounts. Thats the highest Ive seen."
Not only are they enormously popular with the electorate in general, but polls show that they are especially popular with two of the Democratic Partys largest constituencies: union members and minorities.
Still, relatively few Republican leaders in Congress have fully embraced the idea, waiting to see what the Bush commission proposes and how Mr. Bush fares politically when he formally sends his plan to Congress this fall.
"The issue started out as a very positive one for Bush the campaigner, but it ended up working against him in the closing days of the election," Mr. Zogby said.
Vice President Al Gore relentlessly attacked Mr. Bush on the issue in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, charging that his plan would destroy Social Security. Mr. Bush "was not able to credibly answer Gores charges," Mr. Zogby said. "And so voters over 70 years of age who were with Bush all year ended up tipping the balance [on this issue] for Gore."
But with Social Security expected to begin running out of money to pay retirement benefits in 15 years, administration officials believe the Democrats have put themselves in a box on the issue that will work to Mr. Bushs advantage.
"The Democrats cant say, 'Do nothing to change the system, as they have been saying. Their fallback position now seems to be to let the government do the investing, something that [Senate Majority Leader]Tom Daschle seems to be selling now," Mr. Tanner said.
"If the debate is over who will invest the money, we win on that. Americans are opposed to letting the government do that. No one wants the government owning General Motors," he said.
The administration believes that Mr. Bush ultimately will be able to trump the Democratic attacks if he "keeps the focus on wealth creation through investment and personal ownership that they can leave to their children," a Bush adviser said.
But with Congress so narrowly divided between the Democrats and Republicans, Mr. Bush is going to have to do a very convincing selling job if he is to persuade a majority in his own party to support private Social Security accounts.
Administration insiders describe much of the Republican rank and file in Congress as worried about the issue and how it will play in the 2002 midterm elections. Although Mr. Bush intends to present the plan to Congress and begin debate late this year, even supporters like Mr. Tanner doubt that it will be taken up by Congress before 2003. "I think 2003 is a more realistic scenario," he said.
"Its a great issue, but I dont think there is a majority in Congress with the guts to do it because the balance of power in Congress is so narrow," Mr. Zogby said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Zogby said he is impressed by the strong public support that people show for Mr. Bushs plan. "Not only does the plan have potential, but support for it does not dissipate when the stock market tumbles. This is more a values issue than a money issue. Americans want choice," he said.

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