George W. Bush knew he was taking a big gamble last May when he advocated partial privatization of the Social Security system. With nearly half of Americans owning at least a little corporate stock, he thought the time for private retirement accounts had come.
"I trust Americans to make their own decisions and manage their own money," he said.
That bold policy move is beginning to look like a major political mistake by Governor Bush. "This issue could be a big benefit for [Vice President] Gore," says Dean Baker, a vigorous defender of the pay-as-you-go system, who is at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington.
For one thing, some Americans, especially women, suspect they might make the wrong investment decisions. So any encroachment on Social Security makes them nervous.
Exploiting this, the Gore-Lieberman camp has set up a Web site (www.Bushinsecurity.com) attacking the Bush plan.
More important, a host of organizations with millions of members are gearing up to make Social Security a major issue over the next several weeks. Their leaders fear that the Bush plan, though vague on details, would be the camel's nose in the tent for full privatization down the road.
"This issue is heating up every day," says Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, Washington.
The liberal policy group is attempting to make the differences between the Gore and Bush plans more distinct by having candidates for Congress sign a specific pledge: "I will oppose privatizing Social Security. This means I will oppose replacing Social Security's guaranteed benefits with private investment accounts."
John Corzine, the well-to-do Democratic senatorial candidate in New Jersey, signed up last Thursday at a special ceremony. Other Democrats have also signed. "Democrats are using the pledge to put their opponents on the defensive," says Mr. Hickey. "If Bush wins [the election], privatization stays on the table as a hot item."
If Gore wins, his plan for "Retirement Savings Plus" - voluntary individual accounts that would supplement Social Security checks - could build up steam, depending on how Democrats fare in Congress. The current system would remain untouched, though its trust fund might be bolstered by using general revenues.
The libertarian Cato Institute and conservative Heritage Foundation have received millions of dollars from various financial institutions for their pro-privatization efforts.
Hickey's group has a $500,000 annual budget, but it gets help from other groups with huge memberships and big budgets. There is the AFL-CIO, the 13 million-member labor federation. Also the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), a Washington-based group with about 4.5 million members paying $10 a year. Their average age is 77. They vote and they have an acute interest in Social Security checks.
This group is engaged in voter-registration and absentee-ballot drives. For example, customers of Meals on Wheels are getting a form on how to obtain absentee ballots.
Another goal, says NCPSSM grass-roots manager Heidi Sternheim, is to clarify the "real differences" between the Bush and Gore plans.
Then there is the National Council of Women's Organizations Task Force on Women and Social Security. It is engaged in an "educational" effort through 17 major women's groups.
"Women voters are really confused on this issue," says project director Catherine Hill. "Many like the idea of private accounts. But once they get the facts, we see a real change."
The "facts," she says, include likely cuts in Social Security benefits under the Bush plan.
Some women's groups plan door-to-door campaigns. Other efforts include direct mail, town meetings, and Web sites.
Another Washington group, the 2030 Center, is trying to reach voters in their 20s and 30s with its defense of Social Security. People in this age group find private accounts most appealing. But they are less likely to vote.
Mr. Baker holds that Gore should hit the Social Security issue harder - especially in states with older populations, such as Florida and Pennsylvania.
A Gore-Lieberman campaign spokesman, Dagoberto Vega, says Gore takes "every opportunity" to explain why Bush "has no credibility on this issue." One major charge is that Bush has not specified how much of the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax will be diverted to private accounts and how much that will shrink the trust fund.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society