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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Social Security: That Dog Won’t Hunt Department

On February 6, Nick Confessore argued in the New York Times that “Going for Broke May Break Bush” and the next day Ron Brownstein commented that “Bush’s Social Security Equation Comes Up Short on Money, Trust“. And in last Friday’s New York Times, the bloody implications of indexing Social Security benefits to prices, instead of wages, were copiously detailed.
Things just aren’t coming up roses for the president as he continues to stump for his Social Security plan. It looks like it’s going to be harder than Bush anticipated to move public opinion in his direction. And that’s for a very good reason: the underlying structure of public opinion is hostile to Bush’s approach.
Consider these results from a just-released Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard survey of public opinion on Social Security issues:
1. Only about a quarter (27 percent) say Social Security is in a crisis, 46 percent say Social Security has major problems, but is not in a crisis, and the rest say the program has minor problems or no problems. Note that the “crisis” figure in this question is actually substantially lower than it was in the late 1990’s when it reached as high as 36 percent.
2. The only ways of fixing Social Security’s future financial problems that garner majority support are two alternate wording about benefit cuts for the wealthy: “reducing the rate of growth in benefits for wealthy retirees only” (60 percent) and “cutting guaranteed benefits for wealthy retirees only” (54 percent). But that’s not what Bush proposes to do–he proposes to cut everybody’s benefits, which gets quite a different reception: “reducing the rate of growth in benefits for future retirees” gets only 30 percent support and “cutting guaranteed benefits for future retirees” receives just 13 percent support.
3. No matter whether the accounts in the president’s plan are referred to as “private” or “personal”, they get about the same middling level of support in the abstract (that is, without any tradeoffs or costs). But that 54-57 percent majority support drops to a dead-even 46-46 split once Bush’s name is associated with the plan and drops much further when some of the plan’s tradeoffs and costs are mentioned.
This can be seen in two ways. First, followups to the general question of support for private/personal accounts show sharp drops in support for these accounts when costs/tradeoffs are mentioned. Specifically, support drops to 34 percent when it is pointed out that those who open accounts but make poor investment decisions would wind up with lower benefits than under the current system; to 29 percent if it is true that the plan including private/personal accounts would not by itself solve Social Security’s financial problems; and to 22 percent if the government would have to borrow $700 billion or more to set up these accounts.
Second, a question that mentions both the stock market option for Social Security contributions and changes in guaranteed benefits yields majority opposition to such an approach. People are opposed 52-43 if the change in guaranteed benefits is referred to as “reducing the rate of growth in benefits” and are opposed by an overwhelming 66-30 if the change in benefits is simply referred to as “cutting guaranteed benefits”.
4. Finally, just 9 percent believe creating private/personal accounts would, by itself, solve Social Security’s financial problems. And slightly more people believe young people will wind up with less money under a personal accounts system (35 percent) than believe they will wind up with more money if these accounts were available (33 percent). Another 24 percent believe young people will do about the same under a personal accounts system as under the current system. That means there’s a 59-35 majority against the idea young people will gain with a personal accounts system.
As a certain ex-president might have put it: that dog just won’t hunt. We’ll see how long it will take for Bush to face this bitter truth.