Feature

The new wrinkle in Bush’s Social Security plan

Will reducing benefits for wealthier retirees work?

What happened President Bush's plan to overhaul the Social Security system got a boost this week, when congressional Republicans said they would soon submit a bill incorporating the president's ideas. The announcement came after Bush, speaking at a prime-time press conference, said for the first time that he was open to the idea of reducing benefits for wealthier retirees to keep the program solvent. Polls show dwindling public support for a major overhaul of Social Security, especially Bush's plan to allow people to put some of their withholding taxes into private accounts invested in stocks or bonds. But the administration continued to lobby hard, and Bush's congressional allies say they were prepared to make Social Security reform a top priority.

In a sign of the tough road ahead, few Republicans publicly endorsed Bush's plan to reduce benefits, and Democrats quickly denounced it. But Bush said that if Democrats didn't like his plan, which includes 'œprogressive indexing' of benefits, the burden was on them to come up with alternatives. 'œThose who block meaningful reform,' Bush told a crowd in Falls Church, Va., 'œare going to be held to account in the polls.'

What the editorials said Bush has called the Democrats' bluff, said The Wall Street Journal. His plan not only addresses the 'œsolvency' issue they've been whining about, it also protects the poor at the expense of the rich. Democrats should be 'œdoing 'fairness' cartwheels' in the street. Instead, of course, they're denouncing the plan for 'œcutting the benefits of middle-class seniors.' That's because they're more interested in 'œjust saying no' to Bush than in implementing meaningful reform.

Democrats are right to hold their ground, said The New York Times. Social Security could be saved in its present form with a few relatively minor tax increases, such as raising the cap on the amount of income subject to payroll taxes from $90,000 to $150,000. Yet this taxphobic president would prefer to balance the books by taking a 'œhuge bite' out of retirement benefits. The American people are saying no to this idea as well. Bush 'œobviously can't hear them, but we hope Congress can.'

What the columnists saidDemocrats are fond of portraying President Bush as an out-of-touch aristocrat, said John Tierney in The New York Times. But suddenly, he's sounding 'œmore like Robin Hood,' vowing to protect the poor by reducing benefits for the well-off. In one deft move, in fact, 'œBush raised a supremely awkward question for Democrats: Which party really cares about the poor?' But Democrats are so confident that Bush's Social Security initiative is doomed, they're not even bothering to answer.

Unfortunately, said Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard, they don't really have to. 'œHistory will surely vindicate Bush for trying to solve a serious national problem before it becomes a staggering mess.' But it's hard to see how Bush can get his reforms through this Congress, because the public simply isn't ready to face the hard choices. So Bush should find a graceful way out. With the situation improving in Iraq, and the economy rebounding, it would be a shame for him to get bogged down in a noble battle he can't win.

Actually, that's precisely what he wants, said Robert Reich in USA Today. As long as everyone stays focused on Social Security, 'œit blocks consideration of the real domestic crisis President Bush doesn't want to touch: the health-care system.' Medicare and Medicaid are hurtling toward bankruptcy much faster than Social Security is, and the number of Americans without health insurance is steadily rising. Fixing those problems, however, would require the sort of activist response Bush and the Republicans could never embrace. 'œSo they're using the fake crisis of Social Security as a diversion.'

What next?

The New York Sun

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