Politics & Policy

“Save Social Security First”?

Just a few years ago, Democrats talked about a crisis they now deny exists.

The latest line of attack against President Bush’s still-unformed plan to reform the Social Security system is the charge that the White House is manufacturing a phony Social Security “crisis” to sell its proposal. “The fabricated crisis is the hallmark of the Bush presidency,” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson wrote this week. “To attain goals that he had set for himself before he took office–the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the privatization of Social Security–he concocted crises where there were none.” A number of other commentators, and also some news reporters, have joined in the same theme in recent weeks.

A key document in the controversy, a strategy memo written in early January by White House aide Peter Wehner–a top assistant to political chief Karl Rove–does not use the word “crisis,” but it does say clearly that Social Security is headed for trouble. “Our strategy will probably include speeches early this month to establish an important premise: the current system is heading for an iceberg,” Wehner writes. “We need to establish in the public mind a key fiscal fact: right now we are on an unsustainable course. That reality needs to be seared into the public consciousness; it is the pre-condition to authentic reform.”

To some commentators, Wehner’s analysis suggested that the White House planned to stir up a phony “crisis.” But in fact it appears that President Bush is not only relying on accepted economic wisdom about Social Security’s future financial viability but also, in his campaign for reform, borrowing a page from the public-relations playbook of his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

In 1998, the major policy question in Washington was what to do with enormous anticipated federal budget surpluses. Republicans, arguing that a surplus meant the government was taking in too much money, wanted to cut taxes. Clinton wanted to kill any tax-cut proposal before it had a chance to gather support. So in his 1998 State of the Union speech, he came up with a famous slogan.

“What should we do with this projected surplus?” Clinton said. “I have a simple four-word answer: Save Social Security first.”

Soon Clinton was going around the country, touting a coming Social Security “crisis.” All of his administration’s economic achievements, he said in February 1998, “are threatened by the looming fiscal crisis in Social Security.” There should be no new spending–or, more importantly, no tax cuts–”before we take care of the crisis in Social Security that is looming when the baby boomers retire.”

A number of Clinton’s arguments back then sound uncannily like Bush’s today, if one makes a few adjustments for newly revised figures on Social Security’s finances. “We have a great opportunity now to take action now to avert a crisis in the Social Security system,” Clinton said, again in February 1998. “By 2030, there will be twice as many elderly as there are today, with only two people working for every person drawing Social Security. After 2032, contributions from payroll taxes will only cover 75 cents on the dollar of current benefits. So we must act, and act now, to save Social Security.”

Clinton’s Social Security-crisis campaign, while a response to Republican plans for the surplus, was also a way for him to go on the political offensive during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. As the scandal grew, he became more interested in fighting off impeachment than forestalling tax cuts. But Social Security remained a potent rhetorical weapon. In September, Vice President Al Gore went to the Capitol for a Social Security pep rally with congressional Democrats, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and others. Gore said that in coming years–by 2032–”Social Security faces a serious fiscal crisis.” Everyone in the group stayed remarkably on-message as they warned that the future was dire.

“Save Social Security first,” said Gore.

“Save Social Security first,” said Gephardt.

“Save Social Security first,” said Kennedy.

“Save Social Security first,” said Boxer.

Today, some of those same lawmakers are leading the opposition to President Bush’s initiative and no longer fear a crisis in Social Security. And indeed, by 1999, after GOP tax-cut proposals had been defeated and he escaped conviction in his Senate impeachment trial, Social Security’s future became a less urgent issue to Clinton. In his 957-page autobiography, My Life, Clinton included no extended discussion of Social Security at all.

Back in 1998, Democrats realized it was politically safe to rally around Clinton’s statements about a Social Security crisis because they knew he did not really intend to take any action that matched his rhetoric. They also knew that Clinton’s words were correct; Social Security was then, as it is now, facing a “looming fiscal crisis.” He just didn’t plan to do much about it.

Now, things are different. George W. Bush, by all accounts, intends to take substantial action. And as he prepares the way for that action, he has decided to use elements of the old Clinton campaign to make his case. Last week, under questioning by reporters, White House spokesman Scott McClellan read an extended passage from Clinton’s February 1998 “looming fiscal crisis” statement without first revealing the source of the quote. That wasn’t President Bush, McClellan then explained. “That was February 9, 1998, in remarks given by President Clinton. This has been a problem that has been looming for quite some time.”

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