The war of words over Social Security

Choices like 'personal account' or 'risk' can be crucial as both sides try to lock in support.

Does Social Security face a crisis or just "problems"? Should the accounts the Bush administration wants to add to the system be called "personal" or "private"?

And should Social Security itself be viewed as an investment program - one that could be earning a higher rate of return than it is now - or is it really meant to serve as a guaranteed base of income for retirees?

In the early battle over Social Security's future, almost nothing matters more than word choices. Public opinion on solutions is fluid, infusing the debate with a sense of urgency as the administration and its opponents try to lock in support. For President Bush, getting enough of the public behind him could spell the difference between success and defeat on his No. 1 domestic priority.

"Clearly, it's early in the debate, so the nuances of the words make more difference now," says Jeff Love, research director for AARP, the largest seniors' lobby.

Still, some word choices are already clear: For Mr. Bush, "crisis" is out. Early on, he used the c-word often - pointing to projections showing Social Security eventually going "bankrupt." In his recent multistate blitz to promote personal/ private accounts, he still used the word "bankruptcy" or "bust" but not "crisis."

Recent opinions

Polls back him up. In the latest Washington Post survey, 27 percent of respondents say Social Security is in "crisis," with 46 percent seeing "major problems" and 22 percent seeing "minor problems." But more than 70 percent of the public sees Social Security going bankrupt sooner or later.

"They sense there's a problem, that there will be insolvency," says pollster John Zogby, who has surveyed the issue for the libertarian Cato Institute. "But they also have a sense that this is not the time for Paul Revere. He did not go through the streets of Boston saying, 'The British are coming - 37 years from now!' "

Then there's the question of how to characterize the White House's proposal to allow younger workers to divert part of their payroll taxes to separate accounts. At briefings, the reporter who asks about "private" accounts is quickly corrected to say "personal" accounts. Much thought has gone into this rhetorical choice.

The word "private" suggests something exclusive - such as a private club or private school - whereas "personal" suggests ownership for everyone, says Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who addressed a recent GOP retreat in West Virginia. "The word ownership is good, but saying 'opportunity to own' is even better," he adds.

Still, some of these word choices wind up being a difference without much distinction. The recent Washington Post survey found that public support for the president's plan varied little between "personal" (57 percent) and "private" (54 percent) investment accounts.

As with many issues, pollsters can manipulate results through their word choices. On Social Security, "any time you bring up any negative, it lowers Americans' support for private accounts," says Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup Poll. "So if you mention 'risk,' 'no guarantee,' or 'trillion-dollar short-term transition costs,' support will go down."

For the pro-personal-account argument, the upside is choice. "Anytime you introduce the words 'choice' and 'invest,' without qualifications, that will produce your highest support," says Mr. Newport.

The concept of inheritability - that a private Social Security account could potentially become part of one's estate - also plays well with the public. Ask Mr. Zogby what are the most persuasive words being used and he answers quickly: "It's my money." Bush repeats that concept over and over during his appearances around the country. But he doesn't completely avoid mentioning the downside - the risk inherent in investing in markets. Implicitly addressing concern that some people would take "their money" and invest it foolishly, Bush speaks of guidelines that would require workers to invest conservatively. That strategy "helps manage risk," he says.

But in the next breath, the president virtually promises that anyone who buys into the personal accounts would end up ahead of those who don't. "You'll have more money when it comes time to retire," he said in Omaha, Neb., on Feb. 4.

At the heart of the matter

Many Democrats quake at the idea that a central pillar of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal - guaranteed retirement money - could be dismantled over time, potentially resulting in millions of retirees without enough to live on. Another feature that complicates the debate is that, in fact, the administration has not yet proposed how to make the system solvent.

Rhetorically, that piece of Social Security change could be especially tough for the administration. The only choices that have been popular with the public involve raising taxes on wealthier Americans, such as charging Social Security taxes on income above $90,000. Bush insists on no tax increases, though he has not specifically addressed the idea of raising the income cap. Other options - raising Social Security taxes, raising the retirement age, and lowering the growth in benefits for future retirees - are all unpopular. But the Democrats know Republicans won't put forth an obviously unpopular plan.

The larger rhetorical challenge Democrats face is in the way the Social Security debate is framed - that is, how it fits into the "fundamental frames" that Republicans have used on issues such as Medicare, the environment, and regulation, says George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.

"For example, there's the frame of bloated big government that's inefficient and can't be trusted," says Professor Lakoff. "There are the wonders of the free market, where everything is individual initiative. There's 'you can spend your money better than the government can.' "He adds: "For many people, each of these frames has come to seem like common sense."

The Democrats have not yet produced their own set of fundamental frames, Lakoff says. And he is reluctant, without having done the research, to declare what would work. But one notion he is thinking about is that of the common good - a feeling he likens to the mood following 9/11, of a nation united in common purpose.

On Social Security, he says, "the Democrats are implicitly saying [that] Americans stick together and take care of their own. Younger Americans as a group take care of older Americans as a group. That's part of what Social Security is about."

But for now, looking at the explicit arguments, the Democrats are left "as a party that just says no," says Zogby. "The problem the Democrats face is that by just being obstructionist, they can get 48 percent of the vote. But that's not enough to win."

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