- The Washington Times - Monday, October 28, 2002

The Democrats have been playing the Social Security fear card for all its worth in the final weeks of the midterm elections. Meanwhile, President Bush has been strangely mute on the issue.
House and Senate Democratic candidates have been pounding their Republican opponents with demagogic television ads that claim Republicans want to privatize and destroy Social Security. Mr. Bush, however, has said little in their defense on this issue, which he championed in his 2000 campaign.
Social Security personal-retirement accounts would let workers invest a small part of their Social Security payroll taxes into IRA-type stock or bond funds to build a more comfortable and secure retirement.
Not only is Mr. Bush silent about a topic that Democrats are flogging on the airwaves and in massive voter mailings in pivotal Senate races, some administration officials have hinted his retreat.
Washington Post White House reporter Mike Allen wrote last week that "administration officials said Bush plans to promote a national conversation about the issue next year, but is unlikely to push Congress to pass a plan until 2005, if he wins re-election." Even more troubling, Mr. Allen quoted officials saying "for the first time that Bush would consider alternatives to personal accounts," the core of his reform plan. "There are different ways to accomplish the president's objectives," a senior administration official told The Post.
Senior White House officials flatly deny that Mr. Bush is going south on his plan to open up the Social Security System to some very modest investments to strengthen and insure the program's long-term financing.
A high-level adviser to the president that I interviewed maintains The Post story "is not true." And White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan says, "The president believes that this is something that must be done." A bipartisan, 16-member presidential commission, that Mr. Bush created to brainstorm plans for implementing his reforms, produced three alternatives last year for Congress to consider. Ms. Buchan says the president is eager for that process to move forward.
"We continue to work with Congress. The president believes Social Security must be fixed. It continues to be an important initiative and priority for the president," she says.
Why leave Republican candidates to fend for themselves from the mounting and wildly inaccurate attacks from Democrats? One reason: The president's strategists believe that jumping into the Social Security battle now would only elevate the issue for the Democrats to their advantage. Better, they reason, to let this fight play itself out in individual races and not in the national spotlight.
House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt said earlier this year that "this election is a referendum on Social Security." The White House intends to hold him to that claim. If Republicans hold the House, as it appears they will, and retake the Senate, which is a tossup right now, the administration can claim that they won a major victory on Social Security, maybe even a mandate.
Still, suspicions in some Republican quarters lingered that the administration official who talked to The Post was attempting to turn the flame down on a hot political issue that Democrats hope will turn back Republican challenges in Missouri, Minnesota and South Dakota.
Possibly, but that reasoning seems too clever by half. Besides, despite the story's obvious news value, The Post buried the item on the jump page of a front-page report about Republicans planning for next year's agenda. That signaled either that they were not too sure of the story, or the administration was floating a trial balloon.
Outside administration advisers are not buying the rumor, either. "Everything I hear tells me that it is not true," said Andrew Biggs of the Cato Institute, who served on the Bush commission's staff. "My conversations [with White House officials] have given me no reason to give credence to The Post story," he said.
Meantime, the Democrats are conducting a fierce airwaves offensive against the GOP. A Democratic Senate Campaign Committee official told me that the party has produced 21 different attack ads on Social Security that have been broadcast hundreds of times.
In a typical and reprehensible direct-mail attack package sent to elderly voters, Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan's campaign accuses her Republican rival, Jim Talent, of attempting to slash monthly benefits and says his plan will "destroy our dreams of a secure retirement. The Democrats' charges are all bogus. Mr. Bush's plan would not privatize Social Security anymore than the federal government's employee pension plan is privatized by allowing workers (and members of Congress, too) to invest in stocks and bonds. The feds continue to run that program just as they would continue to run Social Security under Mr. Bush's proposal.
Are the Democrats attacks working? Judging from the closeness of the Senate races, it does not appear so. In the Missouri race, where Mrs. Carnahan ran nothing but Social Security attack ads for months, Mr. Talent leads by 6 to 8 points.
Is it possible that the Democrats have played the Social Security fear card just one too many times, and that an informed and growing investor class is turned off by their dishonest, election-year scare tactics?

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

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