During the presidential election campaign, one of George W. Bush’s most popular proposals was to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private accounts. Now that he has won -- albeit by the most excruciatingly close margin -- Washington pundits are advising him to abandon this proposal, concentrating instead on small “confidence building” proposals. That is exactly the wrong advice.
In fact, if president-elect Bush wants to unite the American people behindhis administration and secure a place in history for something besides the“Florida miracle,” he should make Social Security reform a defining issue ofhis presidency.
If next summer the American people are still talking about chads andbutterfly ballots, the Bush administration will be in trouble. A series oftiny, inconsequential initiatives, no matter how well intentioned, will donothing to redefine a Bush presidency. Instead, he must find a “big” issueto focus the public’s attention, an issue that can both excite and unite theAmerican people. Social Security can do that.
According to election night exit polls, 57 percent of American voterssupport partially privatizing Social Security. That makes Social Securityprivatization arguably more popular than Bush himself. If he is going topick an issue to stake his political capital on, it seems logical to pickone that already has the support of a majority of Americans.
Social Security privatization is also an issue that offers a uniqueopportunity for Bush to reach out to those who did not support him in theelection. Bush received the smallest percentage of the African-American voteof any Republican candidate in recent history. But African-Americans, withshorter life-expectancies and less accumulated wealth, are among the groupsthat stand to benefit most from Social Security privatization. Pollsconsistently show that African-Americans support private investment of theirsocial Security taxes. This is an opportunity for President Bush to appealto blacks on far more than a symbolic basis.
Likewise, Republicans are still perceived as a party that favors thewealthy. But the wealthy already have the advantage of being able to investin private markets and accumulate wealth. The poor have no discretionaryincome to invest, especially after being forced to pay 12.4 percent of theirincome in to a failing Social Security system that provides them withabsurdly low rates of return. Social Security privatization would allowlow-wage workers to save, invest and accumulate wealth. It would be hard tothink of a better example of compassionate conservatism in action, givingevery truck driver, waitress and lathe operator the same opportunity toparticipate in the American economy as their wealthier counterparts. Imaginethe transformation of American politics when there is no longer a dividebetween labor and capital--because every laborer is a capitalist.
Will Social Security privatization be easy to shepherd through a closelydivided Congress? Of course not. But it offers an opportunity for the typeof bipartisan cooperation Bush has talked so much about. A number ofprominent Democrats such as Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana and Rep. CharlesStenholm of Texas support individual accounts.
On the other hand, little initiatives will not necessarily be any easier topass. Some Democrats will be anxious to kill any Bush initiative to make himlook ineffective and to taint his presidency. With small initiatives, therewill be no political price to pay for such obstructionism. That’s not thecase with Social Security privatization. If Democrats decide to oppose anidea supported by 57 percent of American voters, Bush will have a ready-madeissue in the next election.
Bush’s victory could not have been narrower. But that doesn’t mean he shouldbe a timid president. A bold move on Social Security reform wouldn’t just bethe right thing to do for the country, it would be the right thing to do forhis presidency.