Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Supporters of President Bush’s Social Security reform plan fret that he’s losing this high-stakes political battle because his reluctance to offer details has allowed Democrats to ceaselessly hammer private accounts.

“So far, the Bush administration has made a hash of its campaign,” said Lawrence A. Hunter, chief economist of Empower America, an ally of Mr. Bush on Social Security reform. “It’s almost like we’re afraid to lay out the facts and trust the American people.

“If they won’t reveal details, it tells you that they don’t have the campaign together,” he said.

Mr. Bush heads to New Jersey and Indiana tomorrow to sell his idea to allow younger workers to incorporate private savings accounts into Social Security, the beginning of what the administration promises will be a 60-day nationwide blitz.

The president, however, will not have the playing field to himself. He will be greeted in each state by hundreds of protesters organized by labor unions and other traditionally Democratic-leaning groups.

The opposition rallies, run under the umbrella group Americans United to Protect Social Security, could rival the kind of hostile anti-war crowds Mr. Bush faced during his presidential campaign.

The group’s spokesman, Brad Woodhouse, said the group plans to raise between $25 million and $50 million to fight the president through a “grass-roots effort” and paid press campaign.

“We are going to track the president like a bird dog to a quail,” said Mr. Woodhouse, who until recently was the spokesman for Sen. Jon Corzine, the New Jersey Democrat who has been his party’s point man in opposition. “We are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

Americans United to Protect Social Security — which is funded by more than 200 organizations, including the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the liberal Campaign for America’s Future and USAction — will shadow Mr. Bush’s upcoming sales trips to Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama.

“The president is going to recognize us before this is over with,” Mr. Woodhouse said.

Mr. Bush’s allies on Capitol Hill have said they only will bring bills to the House and Senate floor for votes once there is enough popular support among the American people. And the two key Republicans who control the two chambers’ floor schedules said that might even mean no vote this year, as originally planned.

Meanwhile, polls have shown slipping support for the president’s preferred solution of voluntary personal savings accounts that would replace part of the program’s current guaranteed benefit. But Republicans in Congress said the poll numbers on solutions don’t matter.

“Right now, what we’re debating with the Democrats is the question of whether there is even a problem,” said House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, who said in town-hall meetings last week there seemed to be a growing sentiment that action must be taken. “Once we are successful in continuing to take that message out, I think we’re ahead of the game.”

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said the Republicans are winning that first part of the debate.

“Where we’re succeeding is in laying the groundwork — it’s just the education, the knowledge, the conversion of the American people on this issue,” Mr. Allen said.

He said, though, that Republicans might have been further along if Mr. Bush had run on a specific plan during the campaign.

“The president talked about this in the election, in his campaign, in fairly broad terms. There was no specificity, other than he was for personal savings accounts. And indeed, you look at it right now, and there still isn’t a specific proposal,” Mr. Allen said.

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