Ask anyone inside the Beltway and they'll tell you: Social Security is the "third rail" of politics. And they'll also tell you that if, perchance, a presidential candidate proposed to touch this sacred entitlement, he'd risk political martyrdom.
Which is why George W. Bush demonstrated this week that he is a stand-up politician.
Where other seekers of high office have feared to tread -- saying anything about Social Security that could be distorted by foes to frighten senior voters -- the Republican Party standard-bearer has boldly stepped forward.
Specifically, Bush proposes to establish individual investment accounts within Social Security, much like private 401(k) retirement plans offered by many of the nation's employers.
His plan would allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll tax into stocks and bonds, allowing them to take advantage of Wall Street's historically high long-term returns.
As it is now, a worker who retires today will receive a measly 1.6 percent average rate of return on the payroll taxes he or she has paid into the system. A baby born today can look forward to a less-than-1-percent return on his or her lifetime earnings.
Meanwhile, over the long term, market investments have averaged returns of more than 7 percent.
No sooner had Bush proposed his Social Security plan than Al Gore -- who previously supported the idea of investing a portion of Social Security funds in the private investment markets -- went on the attack.
"I call upon him to tell us what is in the secret plan to privatize Social Security," Gore demagogued, in a speech this week to the New Jersey chapter of the AFL-CIO.
Gore accused his Republican opponent of "playing roulette" with Social Security, with "putting at risk" the payroll taxes that Americans pay into the Social Security system, with "breaking the contract" that the federal government has with future retirees.
But is it like playing roulette to allow working Americans to divert, perhaps, 2 percent of their payroll taxes to individual investment accounts, which would still be overseen by the Social Security Administration?
Is it too risky to allow Americans to invest that 2 percent in the private financial markets where they stand to reap a long-term 7 percent gain vs. the less-than-1 percent they can expect under the current Social Security structure?
Would the government break its unspoken contract with retirees by changing the system as it presently exists -- especially considering that Social Security will start paying out more than it brings in within 15 years unless reforms are implemented now?
The American people think not. In fact, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll back in January indicated that six in 10 Americans favored proposals to divert some Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts invested in stocks and bonds.
The Clinton-Gore White House obviously read that poll, as a recent article by Derrick Max, government affairs director for the free-market Cato Institute, suggests. In February, Max relates, the White House submitted its 2001 budget request to Congress. In the second paragraph, explaining the administration's plan to shore up the Social Security system by transferring budget surpluses into the Social Security trust fund, the budget reads: "The president proposes to invest half of the transferred amounts in corporate equity."
Likewise, writes Max, last year's Clinton-Gore budget noted that "the administration proposes tapping the power of private financial markets to increase the resources to pay for future Social Security benefits."
So how does candidate Gore explain this election-year flip-flop? "We didn't really propose it," he told the Washington Post. "We talked about the idea."
This is the kind of doublespeak for which the vice president has become notorious. He has made it abundantly clear that he will say anything to advance his political ends; to tar his political foes. Even if it means telling obvious untruths. Even if it means abandoning previously stated positions.
Gore never met a principle he wasn't willing to sacrifice on the demon altar of politics. That's why his criticism of George W. Bush's proposed Social Security reform rings hollow.
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Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.