Election 2004

Bush Said the "P" Word

Has George Bush blown his re-election by saying just one word?
The New York Times has endorsed John Kerry. No surprise there. But its true gift to Kerry was an article that appeared in the paper's magazine on the same day. In the piece, Ron Suskind – the veteran political reporter who did damage to the Bush White House with his book on ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill – reported that last month at a confidential luncheon with big-money supporters (the RNC Regents), Bush said, "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing in with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security." The privatizing of Social Security? Everyone in politics knows a candidate is not supposed to say that. Bush has been trained – with a rolled-up newspaper? – to talk about Social Security "reform," not privatization. Mentioning the P-word is a major slip-up (almost as bad politically – perhaps worse – as invading another country by mistake). As soon as the newspaper hit breakfast tables cross the nation, a Kerry aide e-mailed me a note:

This Social Security privatization stuff from Bush is a huge gift. Huge.

And the campaign cut a television ad within nanoseconds of the story's release. Here's the script:
The truth is coming out ... George Bush has finally admitted that he intends to privatize Social Security in a second term. "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing in," Bush said, "with ... privatizing of Social Security." First, George Bush threatens Social Security with record deficits of over $400 billion. Now, Bush has a plan that cuts Social Security benefits by 30 to 45 percent. The real Bush agenda? Cutting Social Security.
Expect to see heavy rotation in, say, Florida. And how many retirees are there in Ohio? Could this make a difference? In this election – as tight as it is – a sneeze could make a difference. Bush has been dodgy on Social Security for years – talking about a partial privatization without calling it such, declining to endorse a specific plan, or accounting for the $2 trillion short-term cost of such a move. At the last debate, he ducked a direct question regarding the $2 trillion shortfall. And he has tried to self-innoculate himself from the traditional Democratic attacks on Republicans regarding Social Security by essentially saying over and over, "Watch out for those traditional Democratic attacks on Republicans regarding Social Security." But unless the GOPers can succeed in undermining Suskind's piece by pointing out (vigorously) it is based on unnamed sources, Bush has handed Kerry the political equivalent of an assault rifle and said, "Just shoot me."

We'll see how this plays out. But it is interesting what you can tell about a campaign by what gets it excited. Since the last debate, the Bushies have been screaming about Kerry's reference to Mary Cheney. The Kerry-okies are in a tizzy over flu shots and Social Security. What does that say to you? Or forget you – since chances are you've already made up your mind. What does that say to the 49 swing voters left in Ohio? I'm not registering a guess. I'm only asking.

This article comes from David Corn's blog, davidcorn.com.
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and author of "The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception."
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