- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

Democratic leaders have officially begun their fear campaign to frighten older Americans into believing the Republicans are going to cut their Social Security benefits next year.
Without any other issues to speak of, the Democrats have once again decided fear is the only tactic they have left in a last-ditch attempt to win back the House and keep the Republicans from reclaiming the Senate.
In a coordinated campaign strategy begun a week ago, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt led the fear charge, accusing President Bush and the Republicans of harboring a "secret plan" to reduce Social Security retirement benefits if the GOP keeps control of the House in November.
Mr. Gephardt said the Republicans' so-called secret scheme is to "wait until after the election to put forward plans that will cut their benefits."
Simultaneously, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe put out a statement charging you guessed it the very same thing.
Bitterly accusing the Bush administration of having nothing but "contempt for Social Security," Mr. McAuliffe said "the 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." Other Democrats similarly repeated this new election-year mantra.
In this columnist's opinion, there are several things wrong, if not fraudulent, about the Democrats' hysterical accusations.
First, there is nothing secret about Mr. Bush's plan to reform Social Security. He ran for president on his plan to permit workers to invest a small part of their payroll taxes into safe bond or stock funds. He appointed a highly visible commission last year to study his plan and come up with options to carry it out. Those options were widely reported and debated. He plugged his plan in his State of the Union address and more recently in several speeches about boosting retirement savings.
Anyone who thinks there is anything secret about Mr. Bush's plan had to be living in a cave for the past two years.
On the contrary, it may be the Democrats' plan that is a big secret. That is because they do not seem to have one, or at least one they want to talk about in the elections.
They have only a few options: cut benefits, raise taxes or borrow and plunge the government more deeply into debt. Democratic insiders say Gephardt & Co. plan to propose raising the payroll tax threshold and repealing most of the Bush tax cuts i.e., raising income taxes but not until after the elections.
Second, there is nothing in the broad outlines of the Bush plan or in the several bipartisan plans that have been introduced in Congress that would cut Social Security benefits for retirees or those nearing retirement.
Every plan that has been proposed thus far, including the administration's, would make personal Social Security retirement accounts completely voluntary. Anyone who chooses to stay within the present system, with its guarantee of specific benefits tied to one's income, can do so.
Moreover, the administration's plan ensures that no one who is presently retired on Social Security or remotely nearing retirement will lose any of their benefits. This is a plan for younger workers in the system today and those who will join it in the future.
They would be able to put 2 percentage points of their payroll taxes into safe, pre-approved mutual funds made up of large, blue chip corporate stocks and government-backed bonds.
Investment yields from these funds over a lifetime of work based on conservative estimates would be significantly higher than the paltry 1 to 2 percent return retirees are now getting and will get from the present Social Security system. Many Americans, especially poor minorities who statistically tend to have a shorter life expectancy, won't even get that.
The real scandal in Social Security is that the government gets to spend the payroll taxes it is raking in from hard-working Americans, paying them a puny or even negative return on that money, while U.S. bondholders reap 4 percent to 5 percent on the money they lend the government.
The Bush plan proposes to make workers bondholders and stockholders, helping them create wealth and leading to a more secure retirement through accounts that they will own and that they can leave to their heirs.
However, Republican leaders want the issues fully debated in the coming elections before any legislative action begins. Each congressional candidate will have to take a position on Mr. Bush's plan, and the voters will render their judgments at the ballot box. Recent polls show that nearly two-thirds of all Americans like the idea of personal investment accounts.
Republican leaders say they are fully prepared for the Democrats' fear offensive this fall and have no intention of backing away from the administration's plan. "We expect the Democrats will be running telemarketing calls to scare older voters in key districts, telling them that if they vote Republican, their Social Security checks will be cut," a senior House Republican leadership official told me. "We're ready for that."
The Democrats' Social Security fear campaign isn't going to be a pretty sight. But with Mr. Bush's job approval scores in the stratosphere and Republicans edging out the Democrats in the generic polls, apparently it is all they have.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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