Analysts on both sides agree: One of the lamest things George W. Bush tried to do, and a move that produced one of his big legislative failures, was partially privatize Social Security. It is widely judged as hubris, a case of a second-term president misreading his mandate.
How then do we explain his younger brother Jeb – the one who was supposed to be smarter, by the way – telling a group of supporters that “the next president is going to have to try again?"
Here’s the whole quote, as captured by the liberal group American Bridge. See if you can follow it through to the end:
I appreciate the question because it relates to — not because Social Security is an entitlement, I've learned that from town hall meetings — it's a supplemental retirement system that's not actuarially sound, how about that. And certainly Medicaid and Medicare are entitlements and they're growing at a far faster rate than anything else in government. So it will overwhelm us. The contingent liabilities are clear. We can ignore it as we've done now — my brother tried, got totally wiped out, both Republicans and Democrats wanted nothing to do with it. The next president's going to have to try again.
Now, the smarty-pants folks at Vox insist Bush didn’t declare his support for privatization. It’s true the word doesn’t appear in that garbled, Palinesque snippet. We don't know exactly what question he was answering.
But as Vox acknowledges (and American Bridge documents), Jeb was a valiant defender of his brother’s unpopular privatization proposal. Here he is, discussing it with ABC’s Sam Donaldson right before the 2000 election:
DONALDSON: Governor, you and your brother have both been asked about the question of individual retirement accounts. Your brother wants to set up, for younger people, just a small portion of the Social Security payroll tax that they can invest themselves. And the question you’ve been asked is, ‘But if the stock market or the other investments go bad, will the government guarantee against loss?’ And I must tell you, sir, so far, I’m looking at what both of you have said, you’ve dodged the question, so what is it?
BUSH: Well, I think people have the option to invest. It–the money doesn’t leave the Social Security system. So if you take what–what the current beneficiaries are going to get, which, clearly, they’re going to get. And there’s a still–a sizeable surplus, a small percentage of that ought to be able to be invested in an IRA type account for–for people. And over–over time, all history shows that the returns are far better than what–what–what the returns are right now. […]Sam, the point is, that–in order to make sure that there’s going to be benefits for all Americans for the next generation, we have to try something different, and the other guys are saying, ‘Well, let’s just bond it, let’s just indebt the next generations forever and ever.’ And I think that is inappropriate.
When his brother moved on the proposal in 2005, Jeb campaigned for it in Florida – and praised it in much the same terms he used this week.
“I appreciate he (President Bush) is willing to deal with an issue that is so long-term in nature,” he told reporters who asked how he defended the plan in the face of Florida seniors’ opposition to it. A few weeks later, introducing his brother when he came to make a personal sales pitch to Floridians, Bush was stalwart. “He doesn’t have to deal with this. He could let this be a problem that festers for a long time. But that’s not George W. Bush.”
And remember, all of this was before the Wall Street meltdown in 2008, when it became clear that putting Social Security money into “IRA-type accounts” would have doomed a lot of seniors’ retirement plans. (Oh, and by the way, Bush supports raising the retirement age to 70, too, “in relatively short order.”)
So while Vox is right that Bush didn’t use the word “privatization” in his remarks this week (as far as we know from the American Bridge video), the entire context of his support for privatization makes it fair to read his comments that way. He’s praising his brother for trying – just the way he praised him for trying back in 2005. What did his brother try to do? Are we really supposed to believe Democrats are just being big meanies when they say he endorsed his brother’s privatization plan?
And if Bush doesn’t support some form of privatizing Social Security anymore? Then that crazy word salad he served up about the issue was politically very stupid. Seriously, if Sarah Palin gave that answer, it would be widely mocked as more evidence she’s not ready to be president. Does Bush get cut more slack because he’s a man? Or because he’s a Bush? Or both?