COL Everyday folks likely to back president's plan
President Bush will succeed in his Social Security changes because he has skillfully drafted them in such a way that the only voters who are affected support his proposal -- while the ones who oppose it won't be affected by it.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen reports that support for private investment skews dramatically by age group. Those aged 18 to 29 back it by 65 percent to 22 percent. Thirtysomething voters support it by 63-28; those in their 40s, 59-30.
But voters between the ages of 50 and 64 oppose the private-investment option by 49-41, and those over 65, by 63-27.
So the only voters who oppose private investment are those whom the reforms won't touch. Those for whom the changes are real, generally support them.
So Bush has succeeded in anesthetizing the Social Security debate: His proposed changes will stir passion only in the breasts of ideologues of each stripe, but not in the voters most affected. Which means his program is likely to pass despite dire Democratic warnings.
The stakes here could not be higher for the political parties. The ideologues care deeply, on both sides of the fence. Democrats are deeply, sincerely suspicious about the Republicans' motives. President Clinton once told me that the Republicans want to eliminate any middle-class entitlements. He said they sought to restrict any federal benefit programs only to the poor -- so that they can slash them with political impunity. He said the GOP feared any program that benefited the middle class because it gave the government -- and therefore the Democrats who push these programs -- power over swing voters.
This fear impelled Clinton to battle against medical savings accounts, pushed by the Republicans as an alternative health-care reform. And now it leads the Democrats to fret over the personal retirement accounts Bush would establish.
It is not that these programs are likely to fail. Democrats fear them because they suspect they will succeed -- that government-run Social Security will henceforth only be for those so poor they could not amass much in their retirement accounts. (You would have to earn over $50,000 per year for the 4 percent of income you would be allowed to divert to these accounts to reach the $2,000 annual ceiling specified in the Bush proposal.)
Once Social Security becomes only for the poor, the Democrats fear, it will be fair game for Republican budget cutters. The Republicans, meanwhile, look at Europe and worry that middle-class entitlements will make voters dependent on the government. They fear we will become like France, where everyone gets a government check and, therefore, nobody minds paying high taxes or will let the government cut the subsidies. They see the Bush plan reducing American voters' government dependency, making our electorate even more self-reliant.
So the debate taps deeply into the core ideals and phobias of each party.
Yet the entire rest of the nation is likely to greet Bush's plan with relative equanimity. By avoiding the Reagan trap of seeking to cut benefits for existing retirees -- and even exempting those now over 55 from any change -- Bush has relegated the changes to the realm of theory for most voters. For most of these younger voters, retirement is a far-off thing, and their confidence in their own ability to play the markets runs deep.
Democrats will rant and rave. But they won't find any mass constituency for their passion -- and the program will pass.
Bush could still get shipwrecked by the cuts he proposes in benefits to avoid bankruptcy. But his privatization proposal should pass easily.
Dick Morris is an author and former political consultant.