- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

Democrats say they are confident they are winning the political battle against President Bush’s idea to incorporate private accounts into Social Security, and they will continue their campaign to make sure the president won’t again outmaneuver them.

Mr. Bush spent last week touring solidly Republican states to sell his Social Security plan to the public, a departure from his earlier tactic of taking his message to states where he hoped to swing centrist Democrats to his side.

His sales pitch also has evolved in recent days, using sharper rhetoric to counter the unified message from congressional Democrats that Mr. Bush’s plan would ruin the program for current and near-future beneficiaries.

“Encouraging people to divert some of their current payroll deductions and put them into private accounts, in my opinion, is going to be devastating,” Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, said Friday in one of what has become nearly daily counter-message conference calls.

Mrs. Lincoln was speaking on behalf of Americans United to Protect Social Security, an organization backed by labor unions and liberal activists and run by many former Democratic staffers.

Soon after Mrs. Lincoln’s conference call, Mr. Bush took on his critics — who have organized what Americans United describes as a campaign without a candidate but solely directed at defeating the Bush plan through tens of millions of dollars of advertising.

One recent TV spot shows senior citizens performing menial labor, suggesting Mr. Bush’s plan would force the elderly to work well past their retirement age because benefits would be drastically cut to implement the private accounts.

“I don’t care what the advertisements say. I don’t care what the political pamphlets say,” Mr. Bush said at a rally in Shreveport, La. “I don’t care what the politicians say. Nobody is going to take away your check.”

Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Americans United, said the president’s reaction to their efforts shows which side is winning the debate at the moment and that success is encouraging the Democratic Party to stick together.

“It is quite organized because there is near-unanimity on our side of the equation against privatization,” Mr. Woodhouse said.

Political strategist Dick Morris, who helped engineer Bill Clinton’s two presidential wins, said Democrats “can win this just by being opposed.”

“They don’t have to have a plan of their own,” Mr. Morris said. “It’s the beauty of being in the opposition and having been so totally defeated [in the past several elections]. Nobody expects them to have a plan.”

Polls show that though younger workers are attracted to Mr. Bush’s private accounts, those older than 55 are opposed, despite reassurances from the president that they would not have to participate in the program and likely would not see a decrease in benefits in their lifetimes.

“Bush failed to anticipate how deeply the elderly opposed the privatization idea,” Mr. Morris said. “He assumed that by exempting them, he would minimize their opposition, but it turned out not to matter that much.”

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said that though the Democrats think they are winning the debate now, “everyone understands this fight will not end anytime soon.” For Democrats to prevail, she said, they must remain firm in opposition and not let Mr. Bush pick members off for support, as he did in winning three tax-cut battles in his first term.

“On matters of national security and some domestic issues, the GOP has been successful in framing the issue, thus winning the debate,” Miss Brazile said. “On this issue, Democrats understand what’s at stake and will not let the GOP place them in a box where they must compromise.”

Republican strategist Frank Donatelli thinks the president can turn the debate around by continuing to sell his idea while demanding that Democrats come up with an alternative of their own.

“Democrats have drawn a line in the sand, and Republicans can make them pay a price for their intransigence,” Mr. Donatelli said.

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