More Bush Talks, Less Popular Privatization Becomes

March 22, 2005
Has anyone noticed that the more the Bush Administration and its corporate allies promote their plan to partially privatize Social Security, the more the public opposes it? Is it any wonder the President kept his proposals vague until after the election?

A Harris poll released this week found the Bush proposal for Social Security opposed by 58 percent and approved by 35, while proposals on five less-talked-about issues had support or mixed results. Newsweek’s findings are even worse for the White House’s PR efforts: 59 percent disapprove and 33 percent approve of Bush’s handling of Social Security. Repeated polls on this question by Time, ABC, and CNN show this disapproval steadily rising from month to month.

Give the American public credit. When we hear about a solution that would make the problem worse, we tend to oppose it.

The bad news is that we’ve been sold on the idea that there is a problem. News coverage of the President’s proposals and the ensuing debate has almost universally included the idea that if something isn’t done, Social Security will run into trouble. Polls reflect this; people believe there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

On any reasonable list of pressing national crises, however, Social Security would simply not appear. Policies related to employer pension plans would make the list, as would health care, the minimum wage, trade and other policies that are now encouraging outsourcing, the growing deficit, and a war that is draining our resources and killing our young people.

According to the President’s own numbers, Social Security will be able to pay all benefits for the next 37 years if left alone, and even beyond that pay a higher real benefit than what people receive today. Even if we play along with the speculative 75-year forecast of the Social Security Trustees, the projected shortfall is less than what we fixed through modest adjustments in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’80s. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research has pointed out, according to the president’s own very pessimistic numbers, Social Security is stronger today than it has been throughout most of its history.

Various strategists are advising Democrats in Congress to play along with the idea that Social Security is broken and to propose their own solutions. But the Democrats’ strong opposition thus far has almost certainly contributed to the public’s growing opposition to Bush’s plan. People are telling pollsters that they do not trust Bush or the Republicans on this issue, that they trust the Democrats more, and that they think Bush’s claim that there is a crisis is a scare tactic. While many Americans say they believe there is a problem, they reject the idea that there is a crisis.

The Democrats can best gain strength if they continue to speak out honestly and refuse any compromise with a destructive proposal aimed at fixing a problem no more real than Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Yes, many people do believe that there is a problem, but people’s beliefs can change as they are given new information.

Democrats can head off any accusations of inaction in three ways.

First, they can say to Republicans: “You’ve invented an imaginary problem and proposed a solution that you yourselves admit will not solve it. What business do you have demanding that we propose solutions?”

Second, Democrats and reasonable Republicans can point out that there are inexpensive and popular steps that the congressional leadership could take if their concern were really for the future of Social Security. For one thing, they could require that Americans pay Social Security taxes on every dollar of income, not just the first $90,000. If wealthy politicians and Wall Street fund managers are truly concerned about Social Security, if they want to make it even more secure than it is now, then they should find it hard to tolerate paying a smaller percentage of their income into the system than most Americans do.

Third, Democrats can promote their own agenda. It’s hard to find an area other than Social Security where there is not a real crisis. Democrats should be talking about Congressman John Conyers’ bill to create single-payer health care, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey’s bill to bring the troops home from Iraq, Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman George Miller’s bills to protect the right to organize a union, and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.’s proposal for a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing citizens the right to vote. Where is the Republicans’ action on these issues?

David Swanson is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America. He can be heard every Monday on the Thom Hartmann Show. His website is http://www.davidswanson.org.

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