- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

A Democratic TV ad campaign has been attacking Republicans this year for supporting President Bush's Social Security reform plan to create personal investment accounts, although Mr. Bush has said little if anything lately in the plan's defense.

Democratic leaders vowed earlier this year to turn the elections into a referendum on Mr. Bush's proposal to let workers invest a small part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds, and they have aired hundreds of hard-hitting ads against House and Senate Republican candidates in some of the closest races in the country.

It is still not clear what impact those ads are having in key races, but Mr. Bush's tactical decision to stay out of the Social Security debate in his campaign appearances has led to news reports that he has decided not to push the issue in Congress next year and would consider other alternatives to personal retirement accounts to keep the system solvent.

"There are different ways to accomplish the president's objectives," a senior administration official was quoted as saying in The Washington Post on Sunday.

The White House denied this week that the president was planning to put off consideration of Social Security reform next year and said he remained committed to his proposals that were fine-tuned last year by a bipartisan, 16-member presidential commission.

"We continue to work with Congress on this. The discussions are ongoing. It continues to be an important initiative and priority for the president. The president believes that this is something that must be done," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

"The commission put forward three options to be explored, but clearly the system needs to be reformed for younger workers. We need to change the system for new retirees," she said.

Asked about The Post's story that the president wants to put off legislative action on any Social Security reform until after the 2004 election, a senior White House adviser told The Washington Times, "It's not true."

Outside Social Security advisers to the White House also expressed doubts about the story. "I have not heard anything indicating that the president's support for Social Security reform based on personal accounts has waned at all," said Andrew Biggs of the Cato Institute, who worked on the presidential commission.

But Democratic officials were not buying the White House's denials yesterday. They said that Mr. Bush's conspicuous silence on the reform issue in the face of a massive television offensive by the Democrats proved that their ads were working.

"They are having a very positive effect on our candidates because of the lack of statements the White House has made on Social Security," said Maria Cardona, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.

"Bush hasn't mentioned it in his campaign appearances because his own strategists have told him to stay away from the issue, and they have clearly put it off until after the elections, because they know it will hurt them if they talk about it," she said.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said the DSCC and its candidates have thus far produced 21 different TV ads on Social Security in their campaigns, charging that Republicans want to privatize the Social Security system. Republicans have aired 16 different ads responding to the charges and pledging to protect Social Security benefits.

The heaviest concentrations of Democratic ads have run in Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, Arkansas and New Hampshire, all tossup up races that could decide which party controls the Senate for the next two years.

Mass mailings have also been a large part of the Democrats' campaigns. One mailing being sent out to Missouri voters by Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan's campaign pictures an elderly couple and charges that her opponent, former Rep. Jim Talent, "would destroy our dreams of a secure retirement" with his plan. Republicans counter that the president's investment plan is aimed at younger workers and will save the system from future bankruptcy when tens of millions of baby boomers begin retiring.

Republican campaign officials counseled their candidates not to use the term "privatization" because Mr. Bush's plan would do no such thing. The government would continue to operate and finance the program under his proposals, they said.

Still, Republicans acknowledge that the Democratic ad campaign could have an effect in some races, especially among older Americans who vote in disproportionately larger numbers than younger voters.

"When your goal is to scare seniors into voting for you, it is possible that you can have some success with that," said Jim Dyke, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

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