State of the Union: Selling the Con

Behind Bush's unpopular obsession with Social Security lies a greater political purpose -- creating more Republicans. Luckily, the GOP faces stiff opposition.

By Robert L. Borosage

Calling for "courage and honesty," George Bush delivered a State of the Union address notably lacking in both. The speech covered the normal bedsheet of issues, but its core was the president's plans on Social Security.

Bush and his political guru Karl Rove believe that they have a chance to consolidate the right in power for a generation -- and they are pushing to privatize Social Security. But their plans fit neither the needs nor the desires of most Americans, so the president didn't bother to level with Americans about them. He is once more selling a lie.

The president evokes a false crisis -- the looming "bankruptcy" of Social Security -- to justify the need to act, but his plan actually doesn't even address the projected shortfall that Social Security may face. In a profile of cowardice, he left that a blank sheet of paper for Congress to fill in, specifying only that the shortfall be solved with cuts in benefits, not increases in revenues.

His plan is to borrow $4.5 trillion over 20 years to set up private accounts for every American under 55. He promises that the money in the account is your "nest egg" and the "government can never take it away." But that isn't true, either.

Initial plans call for the accounts to act as a loan from the government that would have to repaid in full upon retirement at 3% interest. Any money left over -- and for most workers there is likely to be precious little -- would have to be devoted to a destitution annuity, providing enough money each year that, added to the drastically slashed guaranteed benefit, would save the senior from destitution. The "nest egg" the president promised would exist only for the minority that had anything left over. Don't plan to dine out on it.

Why borrow trillions, slash benefits and create accounts that loan Americans back their own money, require them to repay it and are likely to leave most worse off than under the current program? Mr. Bush's purpose isn't to "strengthen Social Security." It is ideological and political. He wants to dismantle the most successful government program that has generated support for Democrats and liberal ideas over the years.

In its stead, he wants each worker to get an annual report from the government, reporting on what is in his or her "personal account" set up by the good offices of George Bush and the Republican Party. Karl Rove thinks it possible to create a generation of grateful Republican voters -- at least until they retire and find out that their benefits have been slashed and the government is "clawing back" the bulk of the money in their accounts.

Can the president sell this to Americans? Seniors who pay attention are already skeptical; Republicans are wringing their hands and, amazingly, Democrats have lined up in opposition. The Campaign for America's Future, which I co-direct, is mobilizing a coordinated campaign involving an extraordinary range of groups. From the AARP and the AFL-CIO labor federation to and Rock the Vote, citizen groups are mobilizing to defend America's most successful social program.

But the president clearly plans to govern just as he ran for re-election. Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein dubs this the "Rush Limbaugh strategy" -- the president as radio shock jock. Moderate and independent opinion matters little. The president will rouse his own base, discipline his party and seek to pick off just as much support from vulnerable Democrats as he needs to get the program through.

Mr. Bush left after his speech to stump in five red states where Democratic senators face re-election next year. Reports are that Wall Street and corporate donors are putting together more than $100 million for front-group ad and mobilization campaigns. House Republicans have been given a 100-page playbook, with message honed and each word dial-tested. The right-wing message machine will echo the president's line and mock his opponents. The president is selling a lie, but -- as we know from the debate on Iraq -- he knows how to do it.

The pitched battle over Social Security at home and the occupation of Iraq abroad will define much of Mr. Bush's second term. He will campaign relentlessly on Social Security and pray tirelessly for escape from Iraq. But the ice is growing thin and the show is growing old. And those opposing this president will be fighting for the best interests of the country and its people. That's not a bad place to stand.

Robert L. Borosage, a veteran strategist and institution builder, is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.

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