The brewing war over the Bush plan to recast Social Security will largely be won or lost in the battle for public perception. It seems some Republican leaders are realizing they may already be losing that fight -- that the public understands there is in fact no real Social Security "crisis" at all. (Most experts agree that some substantial work is needed in the long-term planning department, but last we checked, this did not translate into a "crisis.") For starters, the GOP has already scrambled to squirm its way into some more user-friendly language on the issue.
And now it looks like they're revving up the old time machine, too. The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick reports from a GOP retreat in West Virginia over the weekend: In addition to tax policy, campaign strategy and the advent of bloggers, "party leaders and White House officials who gathered at the Greenbrier resort also discussed a new rhetorical twist in their campaign to remake Social Security. In meetings on Friday, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and Representative Bill Thomas of California, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, discussed redirecting public attention on 2008 as an imminent danger point for the Social Security trust fund because baby boomers will begin retiring, people present said."
Hmmm, 2008... imminent danger point for the trust fund, or the next presidential election? According to the Social Security Administration's own conservative economic and demographic projections, in its present form the program will operate with a surplus until 2042. For its part, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office sees a shortfall beginning in 2052.
What the GOP leadership sees is the 2006 midterm elections, the next presidential race -- and the window of opportunity to gut Social Security as we know it, already closing.
Update: The Washington Post has more today on the revised GOP game plan:
"The Republicans left an annual retreat in the Allegheny Mountains with a 104-page playbook titled 'Saving Social Security,' a deliberate echo of the language President Bill Clinton used to argue that the retirement system's trust fund should be built up in anticipation of the baby boomers' retirement. The congressional Republicans' confidential plan was developed with the advice of pollsters, marketing experts and communication consultants, and was provided to The Washington Post by a Republican official. The blueprint urges lawmakers to promote the 'personalization' of Social Security, suggesting ownership and control, rather than 'privatization,' which 'connotes the total corporate takeover of Social Security.'"
Update2: Josh Marshall has a link to the full playbook here (a large .pdf file). The 104-pager includes a recommendation for speech giving:
"How to Talk About Social Security Personal Accounts
"Social Security Speech For Audiences Ages 18+
"Good day. My name is _______________. I am here to talk with you about your future, and the future of your children and grandchildren. I have studied the challenges facing our Social Security system. I am going to share with you today what I have learned, and tell you about the solution that I recommend. The first thing you need to understand is that Social Security has to be fixed. It's not a matter of "I want it to be fixed" or "I think it should be fixed" -- it has to be fixed."