On Social Security, voters see candidates 'go polar'

Lo, a whiff of populism has swept through the presidential campaign.

So far, voters have devoted much attention to the personalities of the two candidates, less to the issues dividing them.

Last week's announcements by Vice President Al Gore of his retirement-savings plan and his views on estate-tax relief could bring his differences with Gov. George W. Bush to the fore.

"Not since the 1980s have Americans been presented with such a clear ideological choice between candidates," says Michael Calabrese, director of domestic policy programs at the Center for National Policy, a Washington think tank.

Once the party conventions are over and voters start thinking more seriously of the election, they may look more closely at the dividing issues.

As a result, Mr. Bush may then be seen as more to the right than implied by the "compassionate conservative" label he uses, Mr. Gore more liberal than the New Democrat title he has preferred.

At this time, Gore is starting to use the language that sharpens distinctions between the Democrats and Republicans. He is painting the Bush programs as good for the rich, his own programs as helpful for ordinary folk.

Speaking of his retirement-savings plan in Lexington, Conn., last Tuesday, Gore said it was not just for people "who think comfortably about their savings over Scotch in the club looking out at the golf links, but also the ones who carefully try to make it all add up to the dream over a pressurized half-hour break on the factory floor."

The next day, Gore attacked Bush and congressional Republicans for supporting complete elimination of estate taxes. It would "give a massive tax break to the wealthiest Americans," he charged. "Under their plan, fully half the benefits go to less than 3,000 families" - those with estates larger than $5 million and rising into the billions.

Gore offered instead "targeted" relief to eliminate estate taxes for 90 percent of family farms, 70 percent of small businesses, and some tax relief for all family farms and businesses.

Speaking of a House bill abolishing all estate taxes, Robert Ball, a former commissioner of the Social Security Administration, asked, "Why should we be giving these tax breaks to the children of rich families who already have the advantages of enormous wealth? I don't understand a democracy without an inheritance tax."

The huge tax cut proposed by Bush is also giving Gore populist ammunition. Citizens for Tax Justice in Washington reckons that 57.3 percent of the plan's $1.83 billion in tax savings over 10 years would go to the most prosperous 10 percent of families, only 13.4 percent to the lowest 60 percent. Low income people pay more in the way of Social Security taxes than income taxes.

But it's the Bush Social Security proposal that scares some Republicans and cheers up Old Democrats itching for a political fight.

"Old Democrats need to stand up," says Alicia Munnell, an economist at Boston College's Carroll School of Management. She's worried that the Bush plan with its partial privatization of Social Security could be "a slippery slope," weakening the social insurance aspects of the program.

The Social Security program is constructed to give special benefits to low-income workers, the disabled, widows and their offspring. Compared with other industrial nations, it is ungenerous. A Social Security pension replaces about 40 percent of a worker's total wages. Pensions in France or Germany replace 60 to 70 percent.

Bush thought his Social Security plan would attract voters wanting to participate in the booming stock market of recent years. For that purpose, it diverts a chunk of the 12.5 percent Social Security tax into individual accounts.

Now Gore has trumped him with his plan, one similar to the Universal Savings Accounts proposed by President Clinton in 1998. Gore also offers individual investment accounts. But the plan is on top of Social Security. It leaves alone the basic safety net that most people want untouched. The average benefit is a meager $825 a month.

The Gore scheme is kind of a national tax-advantaged 401(k) plan, with the government making hugely generous supplements to voluntary savings by low and middle-income people.

Differences between the plans are important. They give the election great relevance to voters.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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