Lie of the Week

Bush on Gore on Social Security: The candidate offers an embarrasing gaffe and a mischievous deception.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Published May 22, 2000 1:23PM (EDT)

Lie No.1: "Every federal worker is offered a personal account to help improve their retirement 1.3 million have these accounts. Al Gore , who calls these bipartisan proposals risky, has a substantial amount of his money invested in the stock market. If he is building his own retirement security in the market, why does he object to young Americans doing the same?"

-- George W. Bush, May 15, 2000

Some lies are rooted in incompetence; others are based in boasting that's gone too far (see Gore on the Internet or Love Canal or "Love Story"); and still others are intended to confuse and deceive.

George W. Bush got some unwelcome attention last week for a fib from the first category. After announcing his support for the partial privatization of Social Security, Bush told an audience of senior citizens that it was hypocritical for Gore to oppose privatization, since the vice president himself had a good deal of his own money in the stock market.

Whoops! Turns out Gore has no money in the stock market. That left the Bush team struggling to cobble together a convoluted argument that Gore really did own stocks, since he is the executor of the trust his late father left his mother, and that trust owns stocks.

But Bush is getting a lot less attention for another fib that fits clearly into category three: lies meant to deceive and confuse.

Lie No. 2: The Texas governor told reporters with some glee that only now that he has proposed allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their 12.4 percent Social Security tax in private investment accounts is Gore saying that such investments are risky.

"He's changed his tune," Bush said. "I believe it's important to be consistent. I believe it's important to have somebody who's willing to take a stand. I believe it's important to have somebody who's willing to have the same message all of the time in the course of a campaign."

-- The Washington Post, quoting George W. Bush, May 17, 2000

Bush accused the vice president of flip-flopping on the privatization issue because the administration once proposed placing some general revenue funds into the stock market in order to get a higher rate of return, and thus extend Social Security's solvency further into the future.

But this is comparing apples and oranges. The debate over Social Security reform is fairly well-established and its terms pretty clear. Many conservatives argue that all, or a portion, of Social Security should be transformed from an entitlement into private, individually owned accounts whose values would rise or fall on the vicissitudes of the stock market. That's the privatization argument. Liberals and others who support the current system say that Social Security should remain a guaranteed entitlement for all Americans who pay into the system. That's the anti-privatization argument.

There is a possible common ground. The Clinton administration proposed something called "USA accounts." These would be individual retirement accounts -- partially subsidized by the government using money from the surplus. The key difference is that these accounts would be set up in addition to the current Social Security program -- not using money from Social Security. That would give individual workers a way to start building wealth of their own without endangering the bedrock, gauranteed retirement benefits provided by Social Security.

The whole debate is about security and guarantees and additional benefits directed toward those who get dealt particularly hard knocks in life (orphans, widows, etc.) versus another idea which makes Social Security into something more like a 401(k) plan.

What made the Clinton administration proposal different was that there was no assumption of gain or loss by individual Social Security recipients. You may agree with Gore or Bush on the question of how best to save Social Security. And you may think the Social Security reform debate itself is screwy.

But here Bush is just playing fast and loose with the facts and hoping no one will notice. Gore has enough real flip-flops (anybody for gays in the military? medical marijuana? Elian?) that Bush shouldn't need to fabricate them.

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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