News & Politics

The Fix Behind Fixing Social Security

The Bush administration is giving Social Security privatization the hard sell, with campaign-style tactics. But convincing the public to go along with the dismantlement of the program is proving to be an uphill battle.
In late February, deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove, National Economics Council director Al Hubbard, and Barry Jackson, a special assistant to the president who is handling Social Security reform, met with administration-friendly lobbyists for a "rah-rah" cheerleading session on Social Security privatization. According to The Hill, representatives from the conservative 60 Plus Association, the business-funded Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security (COMPASS), America’s Community Bankers, the National Retail Federation, the Mortgage Bankers Association and the Business Roundtable heard the trio reiterate George W. Bush's commitment to "reform" Social Security. ''Karl Rove talked about its importance to the president's agenda, and Al Hubbard talked about its importance to the economy,'' a spokesperson from the Roundtable told Bloomberg News.

''The White House is running this as if it's a political campaign,'' Free Enterprise Fund president Stephan Moore told Bloomberg. "There are regular meetings the White House has with all the groups to make sure everyone is singing from the same hymnal."
To finance the campaign, business and trade association lobbyists are pressing their corporate members to fill the privatization collection plate. The New York Times' Glen Justice reports that althought "most groups are still raising money, and the spending figures they quote are still often just targets, the lobbying could amount to more than $100 million."

COMPASS, which counts the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the corporate funded USANext as members, just launched its "Generations Together" outreach effort, on which it expects to spend $20 million. The "grass-roots" campaign will try to recruit more than 100,000 volunteers to voice their support for President Bush's Social Security plan at town hall meetings and rallies as well as make phone calls and write letters to members of Congress, demanding action on Social Security.

Collaborating with COMPASS in its aggressive push for privatization is Progress for America, a group closely tied to the White House that spent nearly $30 million on Bush's re-election. As part of its $20 million Social Security reform campaign, PFA has recruited Texas A&M University economics professor Thomas R. Saving as an advisor and spokesman. Saving, however, was appointed by Bush as one of seven trustees for the U.S. Social Security Administration. The trustees issue reports on the current and projected financial status of the program, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest between his advocacy work at PFA and his role as a trustee.

Other PFA recruits include former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin and 9-year-old Texan Noah McCullough, whose "encyclopedic command of presidential history" has earned him five appearances on Jay Leno's Tonight show, according to New York Times reports. McCullough, whose mother describes him as "very patriotic and very Republican," has become a highly visible volunteer spokesman for the White House, traveling to several states ahead of the president's planned visits and doing radio interviews, answering trivia questions and pitching Social Security privatization.

PFA, which claims nonprofit status, was set up in 2000 and shares staff with the Washington lobby firm DCI Group. Records show that the PFA Voter Fund paid DCI about $800,000 during 2004 for work on the Bush re-election campaign. McCullough's media tour was "a brainchild" of Stuart Roy, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) who recently joined the DCI Group. "We'll have Noah there as the face of Social Security reform," the Times reports Roy as saying. "It's about the next generation."

PFA has also been airing television ads, one of which features footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The ad, which has drawn criticism, shows FDR signing Social Security into law while the voiceover says, "It took courage to create Social Security." Over an image of Bush signing a bill, the ads says "It'll take courage – and leadership – to protect it."

Adding to the campaign-like tone, Bush continues a nationwide tour, speaking at carefully orchestrated town hall meetings where he is relentlessly promoting personal retirement accounts. "I'm going to keep saying it all around the country," he told an audience of hundreds of supporters at the New Jersey Army National Guard Armory in Westfield, the Times reports. "I like doing this, by the way – like going around the country, saying, 'Folks, we have got a problem.'"

The real problem, however, is not with the Social Security program.
The so-called Social Security crisis is largely an invention of ideological think tanks and corporate-funded groups. The liberal foundation-funded Center for Economic and Policiy Research writes, "Social Security is more financially sound today than it has been throughout most of its 69-year history." The real problem is how the lobbyist-driven campaign to privatize Social Security marginalizes and renders irrelevant actual democratic discussion on Social Security and its future solvency.

"We're setting up an operation that is employing a campaign-type infrastructure, campaign-style tactics and really bringing election-year intensity to the debate," Republican National Committee communications director Brian Jones, referring to Social Security, told Bloomberg News. But as we've seen, "election-year intensity" rarely, if ever, allows thoughtful dialogue on political issues. Instead, voters get the hard sell.

At this point, it looks like there may be little else privatization's supporters can do as their product – Bush's "personal accounts" – becomes less appealing the more voters learn about it. Bush and company face an uphill struggle similar to the challenge they faced when selling the Iraq war. Convincing the public to go along with the dismantlement of a popular 70-year-old program is no small feat. And unlike Iraq, this time Americans can see a direct threat to their own wallets. Afraid of even less money for retirement, voters are asking tougher questions. And their congressional representatives, afraid of mid-term losses, are starting to pay attention to those concerns.
Laura Miller is editor of PR Watch.
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