He didn't jump into a mosh pit like Alan Keyes, laud Nine Inch Nails like Sen. John McCain or appear on MTV like Vice President Al Gore, but Gov. George W. Bush Thursday painted himself as the candidate for younger voters. And he did so by addressing the most controversial issue in American politics: Social Security.
"Recently, I have been talking about our obligations to 'the greatest generation,'" Bush said. "It is a fitting name." Bush then announced that he would "discuss my agenda for younger Americans -- what I call 'the rising generation.'"
Armed with this nickname -- it almost makes you long for the days when we were called "twentysomethings" -- Bush spoke mainly about his proposal to reform the Social Security system, currently on the road to Troubletown. When the system was established in 1935, there were 22 individuals paying into the system for every one receiving benefits. The current ratio is closer to 3-to-1. Experts speculate that, unfixed, by around 2015, revenue coming in from payroll taxes will begin falling short of Social Security payments going out. The Social Security surplus will be gone by approximately 2037.
Bush has pledged to cure this problem by enabling younger workers to put 15 percent of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts, subject to higher potential payoffs than what he referred to during the third presidential debate as "the paltry 2 percent that the federal government gets for you today" -- but also the whims of fluctuating markets and inflation.
"We will ensure that every senior citizen gets everything they expect and depend on from Social Security," Bush said. "And we will also modernize the system to allow younger workers to put a part of their payroll tax into personal retirement accounts."
The Bush campaign chose a battleground county (Macomb, home to those fabled "Reagan Democrats") in a battleground state for this speech. He addressed a crowd of around 500 party faithful in the main headquarters of Visioneering Inc. -- a family-owned, non-union shop that manufactures tools for the aerospace and automobile industries.
Though Bush has said that he doesn't e-mail or even know how to surf the Internet, he portrayed himself as the friend of the high-tech community. Gore, conversely, was depicted as its apocalyptic enemy -- on the side of the trial lawyers, whose "purpose for our prosperity [is] bigger government, more regulations, a blanket of lawsuits."
Tying Gore's supposed predilection to stifle the entrepreneurial spirit with his opposition to Social Security privatization, Bush said, in his prepared remarks, "This is analog thinking in a digital age, 28K thinking in a broadband era, an eight-track ideology in an MP3 world."
Introduced by some horribly screechy woman and the T-shirted grandson of the plant's founder, Bush -- with rotund Gov. John Engler by his side and almost a dozen TV cameras on him -- blasted Gore for stoking "the fears of seniors while ignoring the hopes of younger workers" with a new Democratic National Committee TV ad.
The ad running in the state -- as well as in other swing states like Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- charges that the Social Security numbers don't quite add up in Bush's budget.
Thus, though he spoke with conviction, Bush also seemed defensive, probably because of the DNC ad, which is notable for not making the larger argument that Social Security privatization is a so-called "risky scheme," but that Bush's plan contains a $1 trillion shell game. Though there exists a $2.4 trillion Social Security surplus, Bush has promised that current Social Security recipients won't lose a dime in his partial-privatization plan, while also planning to spend $1 trillion from the same surplus for younger workers to invest for themselves.
"Which promise will Bush break?" the ad asks.
Attempting to cast himself as the more bipartisan of the two candidates, Bush buttressed his arguments by quoting two retiring Democratic senators who support reform of the Social Security system -- Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.
Moynihan has long argued that Social Security needs to be reformed. But for Bush to act as if Moynihan supports his plan is ridiculous, according to Tony Bullock, Moynihan's Senate chief of staff.
"He doesn't support it, because it doesn't do the hard part," Bullock says. The Moynihan-Kerrey bill calls for a number of serious reform moves -- ones much more difficult politically than just allowing individual investment accounts, such as raising the eligibility age and increasing the amount of payroll subject to the Social Security tax. All of these will be necessary to fix the system, Bullock says.
And while the Moynihan-Kerrey bill does include a provision for private savings accounts, "Those are only possible once you've done the hard part. You can't have dessert before you eat your vegetables," he says. "The Bush plan goes straight for the dessert."
The question raised in the DNC ad is a continuation of an argument Gore began near the end of the third and final presidential debate. "He has promised $1 trillion out of the Social Security trust fund for young working adults to invest and save on their own," Gore said Tuesday night. "But he's promised seniors that their Social Security benefits will not be cut, and he's promised the same trillion dollars to them. So this is the 'Show Me State' -- reminds me of the line from the movie, 'Show me the money' -- which one of those promises will you keep and which will you break, Governor?"
It was a question the Gore campaign had been trying for months to get Bush to answer. Gore's charge, that Bush had never specifically said where the $1 trillion for his partial-privatization plan would come from, was essentially correct. And Bush finally answered it.
"We need to take a trillion dollars out of that $2.4 trillion surplus," Bush said. "Remember, Social Security revenue exceeds expenses up until 2015. People will get paid. But if you're a younger worker, if you're younger, you better hope this country thinks differently or you will be faced with huge payroll taxes, reduced benefits."
Thursday, Bush slammed the DNC ad as old politics, which it of course is. Bush noted that DNC chairman Joe Andrew had questioned the political wisdom of Bush's proposal, referring to the axiom that Social Security is the "third rail" of American politics -- touch it and you die. "He's grabbed that rail," Andrew said of Bush. "He just didn't realize that we hadn't switched on the electricity yet. That's what we're going to do with this television ad."
Bush shook his head. "Not this time," he said. "Not this year." He said Gore and Andrew were being "irresponsible."
"A true leader does not try to put grandparents against grandchildren," Bush said. "A true leader will fix this problem so that both the greatest generation and the rising generation can depend on the promise of Social Security."
Gore has been hammered by what his advisors call "the elite media" for failing to offer a total revamp of the Social Security system. Gore proposes using $3 trillion of the $4.6 trillion surplus to pay down the national debt. The billions of dollars saved in interest payments on the debt -- around $100 billion by 2011 -- would be used to extend the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.
Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a Gore supporter, agrees that Gore's approach isn't perfect. "It buys us about 18 years," he says. "Admittedly, it's not a whole program. It doesn't go far enough." But, he argues, "Gore's proposal reduces the projected long-term deficit in Social Security by approximately half, while Bush's would approximately double it."
More importantly, however, Aaron says, "The benefits people would enjoy under Gore's plan would be immune to short-run fluctuations in financial markets and inflation."
Then again, benefits under the Bush plan may vastly exceed those under the Gore plan. But they also might not. "Growing benefits under Bush would be subject to fluctuation and not protected by inflation," Aaron says.
Those who support Bush's plan, however, like Donald B. Marron, chairman and CEO of Paine Webber Group Inc., argue that Aaron and Gore are missing the larger philosophical point. "It's their money to begin with," Marron said in a speech at the National Press Club in September. "There's no reason why it shouldn't be transferred back to the people."
It's hard to conclude that, on this issue, either Bush or Gore is being particularly honest or courageous. But Bush -- again -- has won the spin war, successfully casting himself as the agent of change while avoiding the tough choices proposed by Moynihan and Kerrey, or even just dampening his $1.6 trillion tax cut to help pay for this plan.
And, as always, Bush is far more savvy than he seems. Not only does this issue allow him to portray himself as more politically courageous than he's actually being, it also has Gore, predictably, acting anachronistic. And it comes with very little actual risk. In a poll conducted for Paine Webber by Teeter Research last month, the American people were divided on the issue of private investment of Social Security funds in accounts with both market risk and reward. But among the rising generation, those 18 to 34 years old, 57 percent were in favor of such a proposal.