Sunday, February 06, 2005

Bush Faces a Tough Sell on Social Security

By ROBIN TONER
“BILLINGS, Montana, Feb. 4 - Nowhere is the challenge facing President Bush on Social Security more apparent than here, at an open meeting held by Senator Max Baucus on Friday, the day after the White House road show rolled through Montana.

Mr. Baucus, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, was sounding the alarm against Mr. Bush's core idea - allowing younger workers to divert part of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts. "All this talk you hear about private accounts," he told a standing-room-only audience of several hundred here, "it really has nothing to do with the solvency of the Social Security trust fund. In fact, it makes the solvency of the Social Security trust fund much worse. Much worse."

Sylvia Stugelmeyer, a retired courthouse worker, declared: "I'm against the privatization of Social Security. It was put into a trust for us many years ago, and I hope to God it stays that way."

The anxiety and confusion were palpable in the crowd, which was composed mostly of retirees - the very group assured by Mr. Bush, again and again, that they would not be affected. Why change the program so fundamentally, several asked. Sylvia Stugelmeyer, a retired courthouse worker, declared: "I'm against the privatization of Social Security. It was put into a trust for us many years ago, and I hope to God it stays that way."

Doris Lundin, 77, asked, "How much money has the government spent from Social Security and put in i.o.u.'s?" As the audience applauded, she added, "And why can't they pay it back?"

More than 4,000 people went to hear Mr. Bush speak on Thursday, and many others wanted to but could not get in. Cheers rocked the convention hall as he described the war against terror and his commitment to national security. They also cheered his jokes, his declaration that he was thrilled to be in a place where there were more cowboy hats than ties. It was, politicians in both parties said, a powerful performance.

But Social Security has a power of its own. Mr. Baucus said his constituents were generally "very nervous" about private investment accounts in Social Security, and retirees, who are most likely to vote on the issue, "are quite opposed." He added, "It's new, it's radical, and it's so different from Social Security as they know it."

In fact, the front page of The Great Falls Tribune that greeted Mr. Bush on Thursday with the headline "Bush Arrives with Bold Plan" also included a statewide poll conducted for the paper, that declared, "Montanans oppose switching to personal Social Security investment accounts by a nearly 2-to-1 margin."

Montana's Congressional delegation reflects that skittishness. Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican, gave Mr. Bush a warm and rousing introduction on Thursday as "a bold leader" and a "man who earned his spurs."

But after the speech, when asked where he stood on the Bush plan, Mr. Burns said he was still "crunching numbers" and was worried about the deficit. Critics have asserted that the transition costs to create a system of private accounts would significantly worsen an already serious deficit.

The headline in The Tribune on Friday, right under "Bush Sells With Charm," said, "Montana's Lawmakers Still Aren't Convinced."”

Mr. Baucus provided essential support to Mr. Bush on two of his most important domestic initiatives in his first term, the 2001 tax cut and the sweeping overhaul of Medicare. But not this time. "You've got to call them as you see them," Mr. Baucus says, and he seems comfortable in his opposition to the Bush plan, even in a state that Mr. Bush carried by 20 percentage points last fall.

Doris Lundin, 77, asked, "How much money has the government spent from Social Security and put in i.o.u.'s?" As the audience applauded, she added, ‘And why can't they pay it back?’

Almost no one underestimates the power of the presidency to go directly to the people and sell a proposal - certainly not Mr. Baucus, who has often felt the heat of presidential persuasion. Mr. Bush's visit to Great Falls on Thursday generated proud and glowing coverage in the local news media and enormous excitement. It was the first presidential visit to Great Falls since October 1982, when President Ronald Reagan campaigned on behalf of Republicans before the midterm elections. (He defended his administration against Democratic charges that he would cut Social Security benefits, the local paper reported.)

For now, the struggle for public opinion is escalating at the grass roots. Even as Mr. Bush dominated news coverage, Moveon.org, the liberal advocacy group, was running television commercials in Montana that warned Mr. Bush's plan would slash benefits and create a new "working retirement." AARP, an ally of the Republicans on the Medicare bill, was busily working against Mr. Bush on private accounts. And Mr. Baucus, after assailing the Bush plan, asked for a show of opinion at the end of his public meeting here. A few hands rose in support of the Bush plan, while an overwhelming majority rose in opposition.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/06/politics/06baucus.html?pagewanted=all&position=
con·cept: Bush Faces a Tough Sell on Social Security