- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

When President Bush unveiled the first details of his personal investment accounts proposal, it was greeted by a loud chorus of naysaying Democrats, who said it was dead on arrival.

Mr. Bush has his work cut out for him if he is to unite Republican lawmakers behind his plan. Opening the sacrosanct Social Security system to private investment in stocks and bonds has never been done, and many Republicans are understandably skittish about whether it will work — and what it could do to them politically if it doesn’t.

In what is shaping up to be the biggest legislative battle of the year, the Democrats and their most powerful political allies are preparing a major campaign offensive to kill Mr. Bush’s plan and defeat any Republican lawmaker who votes for it. If you thought 2004 was divisive and bitter, this year’s legislative donnybrook over Social Security could make that look like a Sunday-afternoon picnic.

The nightly news reports go to great lengths to offer plenty of reasons why the president’s high-risk gamble could fail. But they offer few if any reasons why the Democrats’ unbending opposition to any reform of the system may carry even greater risks for their long-term political viability. Consider these overlooked factors:

Mr. Bush’s plan is popular with a significant number of Democrats. A Zogby poll last month of more than 1,000 likely voters found 30 percent of Democrats said they liked the idea.

Democratic Party leaders “are not talking to their own base, let alone to the rest of middle America,” John Zogby told me.

More to the point, by flatly opposing any and all personal investment plans, Democrats risk alienating some of their most loyal political constituencies, particularly among minorities.

An Annenberg poll in December found 54 percent of Hispanics support the concept of “allowing workers to invest Social Security funds in the stock market.”

The latest Zogby poll for the Cato Institute similarly found Mr. Bush’s plan popular among many minorities, including Latinos, blacks and Asians, who tend to vote heavily Democratic. Fifty-one percent of black voters, for example, who support the investment idea said they would be willing to invest as much as half of their payroll tax in individual accounts. This confirms what polls have shown over many years, that the appeal of retirement investment accounts cuts across all political lines.

“The personal accounts have enormous appeal, whether Republican or Democrat,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “That’s going to create some challenges for the Democrats, who are standing foursquare in opposition to the president’s proposal.”

Perhaps even more dangerous for Democrats are younger voters, among the strongest supporters of Mr. Bush’s plan.

Mr. Zogby found 58 percent of workers younger than 50, the target group for Mr. Bush’s plan, support it. That number rises to 61 percent among workers under 30. Younger voters are the future of any growing political party seeking to broaden its base. If Democrats alienate them, they lose the future. “They stand to alienate a lot of younger people who would like more control over their retirement assets,” Mr. Ayres told me.

Notably, opposition among older Americans does not appear as intense or rigid as Democrats think. True, Mr. Zogby found 55 percent of retirees 65 or older oppose the idea. But that opposition falls to 45 percent when they are assured their benefits will not be touched.

That’s what Mr. Bush did in his State of the Union address Wednesday in an effort to defuse the Democrats’ strongest weapon — the nation’s growing force of retirees.

Many seniors are warm to the idea their children will be allowed to build a richer retirement nest egg than they could, if it will not cut into their expected benefits. The Bush promise benefits would not be cut for anyone 55 or older gave that assurance.

Another big weakness in the Democrats’ opposition is their insistence there is nothing financially wrong with the Social Security system. As Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid puts it, “we’re going to be just fine” for the next half-century.

In fact, Social Security trustees, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office (Congress’ auditing agency) all agree the retirement fund is in deep trouble. It will begin running a deficit in 2018.

By 2027, the annual deficit will be more than $200 billion a year; by 2033, more than $300 billion.

Putting off any repairs will only make matters worse. The last Social Security trustees report estimated just one year’s inaction would cost about $600 billion.

Most Americans do not believe the system is in “crisis,” as some have said, but the Zogby poll found 61 percent correctly believe it faces “serious problems” and needs “major changes.”

The Democrats ignore this disturbing reality at their own peril.

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

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