Judging from various news reports and C-SPAN event coverage, George Bush is doing a good job in the final campaign days, staying on message for tax cuts and smaller government. His attacks on Al Gore as a Mondale/Dukakis Democrat with huge economy weakening plans to spend and regulate are also playing well. And in very specific terms, Bush is directly connecting personal retirement accounts to investors — sometimes actually using the term investor class in his remarks.
But it is increasingly worrisome that the Texan is not directly rebutting the Gore attack on Social Security. Team Bush is running ads about Gore’s chronic problems as a non-truth teller and great exaggerator. But this is more a carom shot than a direct hit.
Far more effective would be a last-72-hour ad buy for the battleground states that directly, simply, and straightforwardly rebuts Gore’s scaremongering demagoguery on Social Security.
Here’s the basic, bottom-line problem: Gore is inferring that Bush’s plan to spend $1 trillion from Social Security surpluses to fund personal retirement accounts would deprive seniors of their benefits. Gore is basically saying that instead of paying benefits to seniors, Bush would pay benefits for investment accounts to younger workers. This combines the threat of Social Security benefit default with a thinly veiled reference to intergenerational class warfare.
When you look at the last-minute polls in key battleground states like Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, this is a criticism that must be covered. The entire Democratic propaganda apparatus is now focusing on Social Security. Inferences become rhetorical facts on the campaign trail, on the talk shows, in the op-ed pieces, and even in the beat reporters’ news stories. At this point, with victory nearly in hand, the Texas governor cannot let this attack go uncovered.
His response should be simple and direct:
1. There’s an estimated $2.4 trillion in Social Security surpluses over the next 10 years. Those are the government figures.
2. The term surplus means the remaining excess of Social Security tax receipts after all Social Security benefits have been paid.
3. By shifting $1 trillion from the surplus tax receipts left over after benefit payments have been made, personal retirement accounts will be financed for those who choose this option. But, after all benefits have been paid.
4. That still leaves $1.4 trillion to pay down federal debt (but I believe turning the surplus money into personal retirement accounts justifies a slower debt pay-down, so younger workers can take advantage of higher retirement investment returns and own their own retirement asset).
5. Then, Bush needs to look straight into the camera and tell the American people that he guarantees the payment of all Social Security benefits under current law. No exceptions. No loopholes. Just as he guarantees the payment of all Medicare benefits.
Bush could conclude by reminding people that Democrats always pull this fearmongering at the tail end of elections. Democrats are opposed to reform. Democrats always favor the big government status quo. After eight years in office, the Clinton-Gore administration failed to reform Social Security, and they’d rather substitute fear for problem solving.
This sort of ad would combine popular policy reform with character, honesty, and integrity. More than any recent politician, George Bush can look the country right in the eye and make a believable promise. But he has to do it. No stone can be left unturned in the last few days of this election. The stakes are high, the opportunity is great, but the Democratic party will not give up easily.
In a calm but firm way, Bush has got to directly punch back on Social Security. Then he can let the Election Day chips fall where they may.