The debate over privatization of Social Security has apparently entered the Twilight Zone.
"Democrats are desperate to engage in this debate," says Hans Riemer, a policy analyst at the Institute for America's Future in Washington. "They are trying every trick in the book to make the Republicans talk about this issue."
Public opinion polls tell Democrats that standing tall as the protector of Social Security from Republican privatizers is a good way to win votes.
Contrariwise, Republicans are keen to avoid the issue. Their polls tell them of the same political risk.
The result is what Mr. Riemer calls Washington "craziness."
In the House, Democrats have been collecting signatures for a "discharge petition" on privatization legislation. These bills would turn part of the Social Security tax over to individual retirement accounts that could be invested in corporate shares and bonds.
Democrats want a vote on these measures even though most of them don't want them passed. They want their Republican opponents on record on the issue before the fall election.
Democrats even drafted three bills that would implement the three different privatization proposals that came out of President Bush's Social Security commission last winter.
At that time, Mr. Bush said the issue should be put off for a year of discussion. But he has said little about Social Security since then, and certainly hasn't pushed Congress for a privatization bill.
"The American people have a right to hear about these issues before the election," says Cody Harris, spokesman for California Rep. Robert Matsui, ranking Democrat on the Social Security subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The Republican chairman of the subcommittee, Clay Shaw of Florida, has introduced a privatization bill. So has majority leader Richard Armey of Texas and Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina. But hearings on the bills have not been held.
Observers suspect the discharge petition will fail. But that might require Mr. Shaw and the other drafters of privatization bills to vote against bringing up their own legislation. A bit embarrassing, perhaps.
Another Democrat-drafted bill rejects privatization, period. Its aim is to put members of Congress on record.
In their attempt to avoid that issue, Republicans discussed but eventually rejected some suggestions that Riemer regards as rather bizarre.
One would have the Social Security Administration send each senior citizen a certificate guaranteeing his or her benefits.
Many people would automatically assume the opposite, Riemer suspects.
Another would be a resolution opposing "privatization," but not defining the word. That word rings poorly with voters. So Republicans prefer to talk about individual investment accounts or some similar euphemism. That prompted Democrats to have an academic research the history of the word "privatization." He found it was the one used for some years in the Social Security debate.
Senior GOP Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has been quoted as saying that unless the Republicans take over both houses this fall, Republicans should delay changing Social Security until 2005, assuming Bush gets an election mandate.