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On the hustings, Bush, Democrats debate Social Security
By Bill Straub
Scripps Howard News Service


March 05, 2005

Washington - President Bush began Friday what promises to be a two-month public-relations blitz in behalf of his proposal to overhaul Social Security, calling data implying the giant federal retirement system is in financial trouble "irrefutable" and maintaining the time has arrived to "get rid of all that deadlock in Washington" to do something about it.

His claims, delivered at a rally in Westfield, N.J., were immediately challenged by well-organized foes of his initiative who assert tinkering with the program could fray the social safety net that guarantees the elderly will receive a guaranteed sum.

"Instead of talking about ways to save Social Security, Republicans are talking about a plan that will destroy it," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, addressing a counter-rally 20 miles away from the president at Pace University in New York.

The give-and-take is the beginning of what promises to be a tough fight over opposing visions on Social Security. Bush, who has yet to produce a specific plan, wants to provide younger workers with the opportunity to divert some of their payroll taxes from Social Security to government-approved investment plans, holding out the opportunity for a greater return on their money.

Reid and others note that the plan actually exacerbates any fiscal problem facing Social Security by lifting money from the program - a move they maintain will force a reduction in benefits. Critics also point to studies showing that a transition to the new system likely will cost a minimum of $2 trillion at a time when the United States is facing mounting budget deficits, with the prospect of trillions of dollars more.

Thus far, it appears the opponents are winning the PR war. A FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted March 1-2 reveals that 40 percent of respondents believe private accounts are a good idea while 47 percent consider it a bad idea.

Those daunting numbers aren't stopping Bush from touring the country to rally support. Aides said the president plans to visit 29 states over the next two months to make his case. He already had visited nine states since his State of the Union address on Feb. 2.

Later Friday, the president led a second rally in South Bend, Ind.

Speaking to supporters gathered in the Westfield Armory, Bush attempted to allay concerns about his plan by promising that those age 55 and older won't be affected by any of the changes he intends to propose. And, despite some claims to the contrary, he is not out to wreck the Social Security system implemented by President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, almost 70 years ago.

"Social Security provided a safety net for many retirees and that's an important safety net," he said. "But the safety net has got a hole in it and we need to make sure we save the safety net for future generations in America."

Bush expressed a desire to address the long-term solvency problems within the system on a bipartisan basis, promising to consider alternatives from wherever they might come. But he also emphasized that the private accounts are a key component to his plan, providing workers an opportunity to build up a substantial nest egg.

Democrats are planning events in New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Las Vegas Friday and Saturday to counter the president's message.

Reid said his rally was intended to "share our commitment to strengthening Social Security," characterizing the president's plan as one that "cuts benefits, drives up debt and ignores the real challenges Social Security faces."


Reach Bill Straub at straubb(at)

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