By Dick Morris
February 07, 2005
The key to reforming Social Security - and politically living to tell about it - is to offer choices to Congress and to the American people, without getting locked in or trapped on particular point.
By posing options - cuts in the cost-of-living increases (COLAs), a higher retirement age, private investment - and by ruling out any change in the benefits or status of those over 55 years of age (full disclosure: I'm 57), Bush succeeded in skating over the difficult decisions. Hopefully, he'll never have to make them.
The fact is that private investment of Social Security funds by individuals will solve the system's long-term problems. Over the long run, the American economy - and the stock market in particular - grows at a rapid enough rate to solve any shortfall that the Baby Boomer retirement will cause in the Social Security system. Anything that investment doesn't solve the influx of younger immigrant workers- legal and illegal - will take care of.
But you can't say that: Voters don't believe that private investment will solve the Social Security problem. They favor it, but don't see its full potential. So if the president falls into the trap of basing his reform proposals on the probable outcome of investment decisions by individuals, he'll be highly vulnerable to Democratic charges that he's selling a pie-in-the-sky scheme that will bankrupt the system. On the other hand, if he locks himself into a rigid proposal to raise the retirement age or to lower COLAs, he will run afoul of those who oppose any cuts.
The answer is not to jam a program down the throats of Congress or the voters. Rather, offer choices in the final legislative product that lead them in the right direction without coercion and without duress. Bush should offer alternatives: Later retirement, slower benefit growth and private investment should be options offered to every beneficiary.
The president understands the need to let a consensus develop from within Congress based on choices and options rather than hew to a top-down program of cuts and restrictions imposed by the White House.
Polling shows that voters reject COLA cuts by over 2:1. There is a lot less antipathy to increases in the retirement age. Particularly if the age is linked to life expectancy, voters are willing to accept a delay of their retirement - if they are under 55 - without undue acrimony. But Bush must couch his proposals as alternatives to be freely adopted by each individual and each family, rather than required by federal fiat.
All this requires a deft and subtle political hand - the exact opposite of the line-in-the-sand stance the president has taken in international affairs. I wondered if he was capable of the required subtlety. But as his State of the Union unfolded, I realized that I had, once again, underestimated him. He gets it - and will skate through this legislative obstacle course unscathed.
Dick Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org
Look for his new book, "Because He Could" about Bill Clinton.
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