- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

The Republicans, say the Democrats in what looks to be a preview of the fall campaign, have "a secret plan" to cut Social Security benefits.
Not so, say Republicans.
They counter that President Bush's well-known investment proposal to create personal Social Security retirement accounts is not a secret and that no retiree or anyone nearing retirement, or those who choose to stay in the program, will lose any benefits.
Republican campaign strategists say they expect the Democrats to open "a scare campaign" to frighten senior citizens into voting Democratic this November, a tactic that can sway older people, according to voter focus group surveys. They think other demographic groups may not be as susceptible to the suggestion.
House Republican officials say that they are prepared to deal with the Democrats' election-year offensive with an aggressive counteroffensive including a guarantee that will be written into this year's budget bill to convince retirees that their pension benefits are safe. They also say, citing the fable about the boy who cried wolf one too many times, this may be the Democrats' last chance to exploit the Social Security issue.
"The charge that we have a secret plan to cut benefits is the Democrats' 'hail Mary pass' of the 2002 election," say Terry Holt, chief spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
With the economy recovering faster than anyone expected and with the war against terrorism all but eclipsing the rest of their agenda, Democrats have been searching for a national issue to help them win back the House and strengthen their fragile hold on the Senate.
In a coordinated party offensive, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, said the Republicans are plotting to reduce future retirement checks.
"There are millions of people out there who care about Social Security and are … concerned about secret Republican plans to wait until after the election to put forward a plan that will cut their benefits," Mr. Gephardt says. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman, put out a statement of his own with a similar accusation.
"It appears House Republicans have a secret plan to vote on the president's privatization plan after the November elections. This bit of trickery is simply a ploy to avoid accountability," Mr. McAuliffe says.
Social Security reformers ridiculed the Democrats' attacks. "The Republican plan is one of the worst kept secrets of all time. They had a presidential commission report on how to implement it. Everyone was talking about it. What is secret is the Democratic plan," says Michael Tanner, the Cato Institute's Social Security analyst.
"Right now the Social Security debate is like a sporting event where only one team shows up. Where's the Democratic leadership's plan?" says Andrew Biggs, a staff official on the commission that came up with three options to carry out Mr. Bush's reforms.
Democrats say it has been determined within the party's highest councils that the Republican Party's Social Security reform plan will likely be their biggest issue this fall.
"This is a fundamental issue. We are definitely concerned about Republican efforts to put Social Security recipients at the mercy of the stock market, which we have seen is pretty volatile," says Tom Eisenhower, spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus.
"The American people deserve to have the Social Security debate before the election, not after it. It could be the issue that this election is all about," he says.
Republicans are respectful of what they call "the fear tactic" and concede that it can influence elderly voters if Republican candidates are not ready with an effective counteroffensive. Mr. Bush's polls rose in the 2000 election when he talked about his plan, but then Al Gore's polls rose when he attacked it and Mr. Bush failed to respond.
"The Democrats' attacks work a little less well with every election. The fear message is most effective with older seniors, particularly seniors that really depend on Social Security," Mr. Holt says.
"I think most seniors get it when the Democrats engage in a fear campaign. But the Democrats still use it because they don't have much else to campaign on," he says.
Last month, in a strategy memorandum sent to his colleagues, Mr. Armey predicted Democrats would mount an all-out attack on the administration's plan to let workers put a part of their payroll taxes into a higher-yield stock or bond investment fund that they would own and could leave to their heirs.
Mr. Armey proposed a bill to give Republicans some political cover that would give each retiree a guarantee in the form of a Treasury certificate that they would receive the full benefits due to them.
Mr. Bush's top advisers quietly fought the idea, believing the bill's consideration would give the Democrats a more visible opportunity to attack his plan in the legislative battle that would follow. White House and Republican comgressional leaders want to use the election to debate Mr. Bush's plan during the campaign and then consider legislative changes next year in the new Congress.
House Republican officials revealed Friday that Mr. Armey's idea has been scrapped because of its $11 million cost and other objections. Instead, Social Security guarantee language will be added to the budget bill this spring.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has been promoting his reform plan much more aggressively lately, talking it up at a summit on retirement savings in the District earlier this month and at other appearances.
But administration officials say there is still "a lot of internal debate" in the White House on Mr. Bush's reform proposal and its political impact on the elections. Political adviser Karl Rove is said to be its biggest booster.
Another Republican leadership official says that if the Democrats pursue their plan to attack Republican candidates on Social Security, "we're not going to lay down and let them say crazy things about us. If they want to play that game, they'll have to go back and defend their votes to raise Social Security taxes and means-testing."


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