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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Messing with Social Security

Hagel calls for raising retirement age

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George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Frank Luntz, the renowned political message-master, is given much credit for persuading Republicans to substitute "death tax " for inheritance tax and for the Bush administration's billing its timber industry-friendly proposal as "the healthy forests" initiative.

Luntz recently gave a private briefing on Social Security to a Republican House retreat in West Virginia. Through a source we will not here name, I have before me the phrase-maker's advice sheet meant to reassure those GOP officeholders who, as support for President Bush's overhaul of Social Security heads South in the polls, have grown more nervous by the day.

Over and over again in the memo, Republicans are urged to chant a variation of the same mantra: "It's YOUR money. You earned it. You sacrificed for it. The government TOOK it from you," and, "This is not the government's money, it's YOUR money," and over and over again, "after all, it's YOUR money."

Clearly, Luntz is either committed to repetition as the first law of learning or he believes his GOP audience suffers from near-terminal attention deficit disorder. The problem is that the voters are not buying the mantra-message on Social Security.

Why is that? The first mistake of Washington analysts and advocates was to view the Social Security debate as a one-dimensional struggle between a younger, more self-confident generation eager to divert their Social Security taxes into a private accounts for their retirement and an older generation, apprehensive of change, anticipating or already receiving retirement checks.

According to the internal tabulations of the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, the strongest opposition to the Bush Social Security plan comes from those American households with total annual incomes of $50,000 or less

While a plurality of voters in households with incomes over $50,000 "think that it is a good idea to change the Social Security system to allow workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market," three out of five voters in households with incomes below $50,000 think such personal accounts are a "bad idea."

It may come as a surprise to Republicans -- and Democrats -- in Washington, but 56 percent of Americans live in households with total incomes of $50,000 or less. These are people who understand from the first-hand experience of friends and relatives the profound fact that, without Social Security, nearly one out of two citizens over the age of 65 would be living below the poverty level.

During their working lives, they have watched powerless as, according to Business Week's survey of executive pay, the average pay of a CEO exploded from 42 times that of the average worker in 1980 to 525 times that of the average worker in 2000.

Not to overload the system with too much shocking information, but discussions about stock dividends do not dominate supper-table conversations in these precincts. About one out of six American families, according to the authoritative Tax Policy Center, had stock dividends in 2000, the last year for which figures are available.

Less than 9 percent of families had dividends of $1,000 or more. Less than 4 percent of American families had stock dividends over $5,000, but perhaps not surprisingly, that lucky 4 percent of families collected 83 percent of all the dividends paid.

What misled the Republicans was the poll-reported, popularity of hypothetical private accounts that offered workers a "choice" to invest in stocks or bonds.

Never mentioned in those poll questions or by President Bush on the campaign trail was that the switch to private accounts would not be free of either cost or pain -- that guaranteed Social Security benefits would be reduced and that the price tag of more than a trillion dollars would have to be paid either through higher taxes or further burdening our children with debt.

There is an old Capitol Hill rule that holds that in any legislative fight, you are much better off having on your side one tiger -- who cares passionately and who will fight fiercely -- than 100 pussy cats who will pay lip-service and sign letters.

In the Social Security fight, the tigers who care most passionately, who are convinced they have the most to lose and who will fight hardest are those voters in households earning less than $50,000 for whom Social Security is their retirement plan.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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