- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The White House campaign in the public opinion battle over President Bush’s Social Security investment accounts proposal isn’t going so well. Few in the West Wing would disagree with that assessment.

It is, of course, still early in what will likely be a long, drawn-out legislative struggle, but even staunch supporters of Mr. Bush’s plan begin to talk guardedly about a possible defeat.

“Maybe we don’t have enough tailwinds right now to get it done. But the worst scenario would be to throw the towel in on private accounts,” said tax-cut crusader Stephen Moore as he surveyed the battlefield last week.

Mr. Moore, who advises the White House on tax issues, doesn’t think Mr. Bush will give up, but he doesn’t like how things are going. “It’s one thing to say he is losing the debate. It’s quite another thing — and it would be false — to say he’s lost the debate. This is the third round of a 15-round prize fight.”

The Democrats and their liberal allies have thrown the full weight of their still-considerable political power and financial might into this fight, to the exclusion of nearly every other issue in Washington. They are clearly on full offensive, hurling a withering barrage of daily charges at the president’s plan in radio, TV and newspaper ads, and through mass mailings to retirees, union members and minority groups, among others.

The White House and Republicans leaders have been on the defensive, trying to rebut the charges one by one. But any veteran of legislative firefights knows you can’t win a policy battle of this size by playing defense. Where is the offense? It’s not there, and that’s what most worries Mr. Bush’s supporters in is likely to be the biggest policy fight of his second term.

For weeks administration and GOP officials have said Mr. Bush must first convince the public Social Security faces a serious solvency problem before the battle can move to the policy fights ahead over his personal accounts plan. But there is ample evidence Mr. Bush and the GOP have won the preliminary fight.

A CBS News/New York Times poll last month found nearly two-thirds of adult Americans believe Social Security will be bankrupt by the year 2042 if no “major changes are made now.” That finding matches a Washington Post poll this week.

This alone is enough to drive the legislative process toward a plan to fix Social Security’s financing. But it isn’t enough to enact Mr. Bush’s core plan. For that, he and his strategists and leaders in Congress must turn the debate from bean-counting, green-eyeshade accounting issues to the American dream of creating retirement wealth over one’s working life.

“The Republicans have mismanaged the debate on Social Security. It should be about private ownership and the gains for workers by having control of these accounts,” Mr. Moore said.

“Unfortunately, the debate to date has been about cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, raising taxes. And those are all political losers,” he added. “All these things confuse people about what this debate is really about.”

The White House needs to get back to the financial reasons this idea gained political traction in the first place when pushed by policy institutes like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute: Reforming Social Security means going from a shaky, pay-as-you-go income-redistribution system to a self-financing investment system based on real assets workers will own and that will not disappear when they die.

Both Heritage and Cato produced potential retirement income numbers showing workers got a much better return on their payroll taxes from stocks and bonds than from the less than 2 percent yield produced by the current Social Security system.

Mr. Bush should be talking much more about this idea, and the White House should offer taxpayers typical examples of the higher yields accruable over younger taxpayers’ working years.

It’s time for Mr. Bush to start putting the Democrats on the defensive by asking why they are willing to let workers pour so much into a retirement system that yields so little when they retire, if they live that long. Why do they oppose letting younger workers voluntarily build a little more wealth for their old age? Who today would invest in an IRA or 401(k) plan whose average yield is less than 2 percent?

Americans know they can do better with an investment plan than the existing tax-and-spend system. The Post poll shows this idea (when not associated with Mr. Bush) remains popular among workers under 50 — drawing support of between 60 percent (ages 40-49) and 68 percent (ages 18-29).

Mr. Bush needs to reconnect the political debate with the personal financial reasons for this idea’s enduring popularity: a richer return on investment, owning stock and bond assets that can’t be taken away, and a much more comfortable retirement for those who choose this option early in their lives. Make the Democrats argue against that.

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

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