Conventional wisdom has long maintained that Vice President Al Gore wants the presidential campaign to focus on issues, while Texas Governor George W. Bush prefers to campaign on character. But with Gore now leading in most polls, it is time to stand conventional wisdom on its ear. If George W. Bush wants to revive his struggling presidential campaign, he should make this a campaign about issues, and one issue in particular--Social Security.
Social Security has traditionally been a Democratic strong suit. But not this year. Whereas polls in the past showed Democrats with a 20-point (or more) advantage on the question of which party would best handle Social Security, now the parties are running close to even. More important, when voters are asked whether they support Bush's proposal to allow workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes to individually owned, privately invested accounts, they strongly endorse the proposal. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll, 59 percent of voters supported the Bush proposal; 37 percent were opposed. Vital swing voters are even more supportive of individual accounts. According to a Zogby International poll, 72 percent of independent voters support individual accounts.
By supporting Social security privatization, Bush can seize a popular issue and put Gore on the defensive. It was Bill Clinton who best explained the options available to fix Social Security. There are only three: raise taxes, cut benefits, or increase the rate of return by investing Social Security funds. Clinton proposed to do the latter by allowing the government to invest a portion of the Social Security Trust Fund, a dangerous idea that has wisely not seen the light of day. George Bush proposes to do it by allowing workers to invest for themselves. Al Gore rejects both approaches, opposing any investment of Social Security funds. With investment and higher returns off the table, that leaves Gore with only two alternatives; either he raises taxes or cuts benefits. Bush should simply turn to Gore in debate and ask him which of those he plans to do.
It's important to understand as well that Gore's complicated proposal to use the budget surplus to pay off the national debt and then credit the Social Security Trust Fund with the interest savings is little more than an accounting trick that does absolutely nothing to fix Social Security. While paying down the debt may or may not be a good use of the surplus, Gore's proposal does not extend the life of the program by one day, reduce its long-term deficit by one dollar, or increase its rate of return by one percent.
Don't take my word for it. The Congressional Budget Office looked at the key elements of Gore's proposal and concluded, "merely changing the bookkeeping for the Social Security Trust Funds may only make us feel better at the expense of our kids." The General Accounting Office agreed, stating that Gore's proposal "does not represent a Social security reform plan and does not come close to 'saving Social Security'."
Social Security is an issue where George Bush can steal Al Gore's populist rhetoric. After all, it is not the rich who need Social Security privatization. They already have plenty of opportunities to invest, while the poor do not. The result is a growing wealth gap in American society. The richest 1 percent of Americans own nearly half of all the wealth in America. But Social Security privatization would give all Americans the opportunity to save, invest and accumulate wealth. That is why prominent Democrats like Sens. Bob Kerrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan support privatization. But not Al Gore. On this issue, Gore has clearly sided against working men and women.
Finally, Social Security provides a clear opportunity for Bush to define the fundamental difference between him and Gore. Al Gore trusts the government; Bush trusts the people. Gore essentially says that Americans cannot be trusted with their own money. Bush would give Americans more control over--and ownership of--their retirement funds.
It's time to really debate the future of Social security. George W. Bush should lead that debate. It wouldn't just be good policy--it would be good politics.