Bush hopes younger voters will embrace his Social Security reforms
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- For most of the 65 years since Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, the program has been extremely popular and politically untouchable. Now George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is betting that the politics of the issue has fundamentally changed.
"Right now, the real return people get from what they put into Social Security is a dismal 2 percent a year," Bush said during a speech earlier this month in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
Bush's aides cite the emergence of a new "investor class," of young and
middle-aged workers who have more faith in the stock market than Social
Security -- like the 2 million people who visit the online investment forum The Motley Fool, which, despite the name, has a serious attitude about long-term investing.
"If you look at the statistics of who is in the market now, more than 50 percent of all American households own some stock, and more than 80 percent of the households of people who are 35 and younger own some stock, be it mutual funds, be it through their 401K or in individual equities," said The Motley Fool's Bill Mann.
Those young investors are exactly the kind of people the Bush campaign believes would be enthusiastic about investing part of their payroll taxes in the stock market.
"It is a good thing for you to have the power over your own money and your own future. And you're the one who cares about it the most. So we'd be very positive for those types of proposals," Mann said.
In fact, more than 70 percent of voters under age 50 say they favor Bush's idea of allowing workers to invest part of their payroll taxes in the stock market.
But the generational divide is deep -- only 36 percent of those 65 and older favor the idea.
And seniors have consistently proven Social Security is an issue they will vote on, unlike the young workers Bush is targeting, who see the issue as a lower priority.
"The Bush privatization plan would take the 'security' out of Social Security," Vice President Al Gore told members of the American Association of Retired Persons.
That is why Democrats think Gore can score by attacking Bush's proposal: young people may like the idea, but seniors don't.
"Gore has an advantage on Social Security. I think Gore has a good argument to make and Bush has some weaknesses here, and the Gore campaign needs to exploit those weaknesses," explains Democratic pollster Vicki Shabo.
By a double-digit margin, those over 50 say Gore would do a better job on the issue in a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll -- although among voters under age 50, Gore's advantage disappears.
Gore believes the key to keeping Social Security solvent is to pay down the national debt, but he has proposed no structural changes to the program.
The challenge for the vice president is to reach out to the voters under age 50, who overwhelmingly find the idea of private investment attractive. To win over those voters, even the senior-advocacy group AARP says Gore may have to do more than attack Bush's
"I think what is important is that we not just hear criticism of what one candidate is proposing, but that we also hear from both candidates what would they would do. I think what the public is tiring of is the fingerpointing and the exclusive resort to criticizing the other candidate," said the AARP's Martin Corry.
Bush's aides acknowledge he must find a way to convince seniors they will not be hurt by his ideas on Social Security reform. That's because regardless of the support Bush may gain among younger voters, seniors vote in much larger numbers.