In her mid-20s and determined to build a better life, Maria Lado liked the idea of President Bush's proposed private accounts for Social Security.
"It's sounding good. It's something that is your own, instead of sharing. That's what makes it appealing to me," says the Pace University student, who is studying to be a physician's assistant.
Still, she has an open mind, so last week she took her Friday morning to attend a town meeting in Manhattan moderated by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, to hear what the Democrats had to say. On the stage was a big blue banner painted with a Social Security card and the Democrats' motto: "Strengthen Social Security - Fix It, Don't Nix It."
"We want to be sure that we set the record straight here about the risky privatization plan that the president has been pushing across the country," Senator Clinton told packed house at Pace, in lower Manhattan. "The president's plan would make our problems worse and weaken social security by taking trillions of dollars out of the trust fund and out of our budget. The plan would cut benefits by more than a third, even for those who did not choose to have a private account."
With polls showing support faltering for the president's plan to carve out personal accounts from the current Social Security system and talk of compromise in Congress coming even from Republicans now, the Democrats apparently want to build on their growing momentum. In a whirlwind of four town meetings two days, they brought out their big guns.
In New York, Clinton was joined on the stage by new Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and erstwhile presidential candidate John Kerry, as well as fellow Democratic Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. For most Americans, the names might draw a blank, but think of them as the Democrats' A Team, the ones they're now turning to in this new trench warfare over the nation's retirement safety net.
Here, at least, they found a receptive audience. This is the home of Union Square, the city that voted more than 80 percent for John Kerry in 2004. An informal survey of the crowd found that 90 percent were already opposed to the president's plan. And in keeping with the tack that has won the feisty city its reputation for understatement, participants expressed their feelings on Bush's plan in expressions like "all hogwash," "a disaster," "just outrageous," and "the biggest crock of nonsense I've heard in years."
"There's such tremendous incompetence on the part of the administration in the way that they package their program and the incoherence of their arguments," says retired senior Marvin Lieberman. "On the other hand, they're also very clever because they see this as a wedge issue that will allow them to take over politics the way the Democrats did for so many years."
The young Ms. Lado was initially more skeptical of the Democrats. She wanted to hear solutions. Instead what she got was the clearest delineation yet of the reasons Democrats oppose the Bush plan. While the president and his supporters contend that allowing younger Americans to invest part of their payroll taxes in personal accounts will shore up the system, the Democrats contend the opposite. They argue that carving private accounts out of the current system will cripple it, driving up the federal budget deficit by $5 trillion dollars. This would then further undermine the system, causing even more cuts in years ahead.
And the people who would get hurt the most, they argue, would be those least able to help themselves, the people retirement plan was designed to help. Clinton pointed out that Social Security is the largest source of retirement income in the country. It provides half or more of the income for 6 out of 10 seniors. At the same time, it's a safety net for the disabled and those who lose their spouses. Indeed, 30 percent of those who receive Social Security get disability or survivor benefits, not retirement benefits.
"I have yet to hear the president say a word about survivor and disability benefits," Clinton says. "And there's not much he can say, because these important elements of this program would face the same severe cuts as the retirement program would if their privatization plan were to go forward."
Her colleague, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, lashed out at the possibility of substituting what's called "wage indexing" to determine future benefits with "price indexing," saying the change would cut benefits 30 to 50 percent.
"If you're 25 or 30 or 35, you'll do worse under the president's plan than if we did nothing at all," he says. "They don't want to preserve Social Security, they don't want to fix Social Security, they want to nix Social Security!"
The crowd broke into loud applause.
To press their point further, the senators were joined by several people on stage who told their stories. Vicki Owens is a retired nursing and rehabilitation aid. Social Security provides her largest source of income.
If it was cut "in any kind of way" she says she'd be in trouble. "I'd probably be a homeless person because the cost of living just continues to go up," she says. "Or I'd have to go back to work to try to find some sort of job to survive."
The president says current beneficiaries like Ms. Owens would not be affected by his proposed changes.
And in pushing change, he says private accounts could leave young people with more savings than the benefits Social Security would provide them. The results, both sides acknowledge, would depend on the performance of the stock and bond markets.
Still, after hearing the Democrats' arguments along with Ms. Owens's story, Ms. Lado was convinced that the president's plan did not provide the kind of security she was looking for in the future.
"It opened my eyes to the problems that might come from private accounts. Maybe they're not such a good idea," she says. "But I still think [the Democrats] should have provided more solutions."