When President Bush unveiled the first details of his personal investment accounts proposal, it was greeted by a loud chorus of nay-saying Democrats, who said it was dead on arrival.
Bush has his work cut for him if he’s to unite Republican lawmakers behind his plan. Opening up the sacrosanct Social Security system to private investment in stocks and bonds has never been done before, and many Republicans are understandably skittish about whether it will work — and what it could do to them politically if it doesn’t.
In what is shaping up to be the biggest legislative battle of the year, the Democrats and their most powerful political allies are preparing a major campaign offensive to kill Bush’s plan and to defeat any GOP lawmaker who votes for it. If you thought 2004 was divisive and bitter, this year’s legislative donnybrook over Social Security could make that look like a Sunday-afternoon picnic.
The nightly news reports go to great lengths to offer plenty of reasons why the president’s high-risk gamble could fail, but offer few if any reasons why the Democrats’ unbending opposition to any reform of the system may carry even greater risks for their long-term political viability. Consider these overlooked factors:
Bush’s plan is popular with a significant number of Democrats. A Zogby poll last month of more than 1,000 likely voters found that 30 percent of Democrats said they liked the idea.
Democratic Party leaders “are not talking to their own base, let alone to the rest of middle America,” John Zogby told me.
More to the point, by flatly opposing any and all personal investment plans, Democrats risk alienating some of their party’s most loyal political constituencies, particularly among minorities.
An Annenberg poll in December found that 54 percent of Hispanics supported the concept of “allowing workers to invest Social Security funds in the stock market.”
Zogby’s latest poll for the Cato Institute similarly showed that Bush’s plan is popular among a large number of minorities, including Latinos, blacks and Asians, who tend to vote heavily Democratic. Fifty-one percent of black voters, for example, who support the investment idea said they would be willing to invest as much as half of their payroll tax in individual accounts.
These polls confirm what previous polls have shown over many years, that the appeal of retirement investment accounts cuts across all political lines.
“The personal accounts have enormous appeal, whether Republican or Democrat,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “That’s going to create some challenges for the Democrats, who are standing foursquare in opposition to the president’s proposal.”
Perhaps even more dangerous for Democrats are younger voters who are among the biggest supporters of Bush’s plan.
Zogby found that 58 percent of workers younger than 50, the target group for Bush’s plan, support it. That number rises to 61 percent among workers under 30. Younger voters are the future of any growing political party seeking to broaden its base. If Democrats alienate them, they lose the future.
“They stand to alienate a lot of younger people who would like more control over their retirement assets,” Ayres told me.
Notably, opposition among older Americans does not appear to be as intense or as rigid as the Democrats think. True, Zogby found that 55 percent of retirees 65 or older oppose the idea. But that opposition falls to 45 percent when they are assured that their benefits will not be touched.
That’s what Bush did in his State of the Union address Thursday in an attempt to defuse the Democrats’ strongest weapon — the nation’s growing force of retirees. But many seniors are warm to the idea that their children will be allowed to build a richer retirement nest egg than they were able to do, if it will not cut into their expected benefits. Bush’s promise that no one 55 or older would see their benefits reduced gave them that assurance.
Another big weakness in the Democrats’ opposition is their insistence that there is nothing financially wrong with the Social Security system. As Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid puts it, “we’re going to be just fine” for the next half-century.
In fact, Social Security trustees, the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office (Congress’ auditing agency) all agree that the retirement fund is in deep trouble. It will begin running a deficit in 2018. By 2027, the annual deficit will be over $200 billion a year; by 2033, over $300 billion.
Putting off any repairs will only make matters worse. The last Social Security trustees report estimated that the cost of just one year’s inaction would be about $600 billion.
Most Americans do not believe the system is in “crisis,” as some have said, but Zogby found that 61 percent correctly believe it faces “serious problems” and needs “major changes.”
The Democrats ignore this disturbing reality at their own peril.