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Politics as Unusual

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP: A continuing series of articles analyzing the 2000 presidential strategies

May 07, 2000|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — My gut told me Texas Gov. George W. Bush was on to something this week when he talked about his proposal to privatize Social Security. As soon as I heard the policy wonks and TV pundits declare Bush's proposal politically naive, I knew my gut was right.

This presidential election has to be about ideas, character and demographic groups if Bush is to have any chance. The economy almost always dictates presidential elections, particularly with a scarcity of foreign-policy issues on voters' minds. If Bush is to break the historical advantage the economy provides Vice President Al Gore, he has to take that chance.

Until this week I was beginning to think Gore could win this election big despite early polls showing a close race. Spring polls are as useless in presidential politics as the analysts who believe they mean anything.

The evidence for a possible big Gore win has been mounting for weeks. Bush, who is at best a decent campaigner, comes across as a somewhat shallow, inexperienced pol running on his daddy's name and country-club money. More importantly, he appeared to be risk averse. I was beginning to wonder if he or his team were dumb enough to believe the polls themselves and as a result were unwilling to make any bold moves. Fine with me. A formulation that would assure a Gore win.

But I confess to a slight panic attack when Bush proposed a change in the Social Security system that, while not new, has been impossible in American politics. He supports allowing younger workers to invest part of their Social Security payroll tax in private investment accounts, though he opposes government investment in private stocks or bonds. We Democrats have been scaring old folks for years, saying, "Republicans were trying to destroy Social Security." Hell, even my own mother would call me before elections wanting to know if she was still going to get her Social Security check after watching all those Democrat Social Security attack ads, some done by her own son. I always assured her that she would get everything due her--the Wednesday after the election.

Before you Republicans get too smug hearing a Democrat say that, remember: At least we haven't played the race card to divide the country to get votes. We exploited the senior vote, while you went after the racist vote. Hurts to see it in print, doesn't it?

When Bush made his Social Security proposal, Gore and other Democrats quickly and predictably jumped on it as risky and a pledge broken. One Gore insider even said to me: Can you believe the guy is that dumb? My response to that: He may not be Phi Beta Kappa material, but that dumb he ain't.

Taking on Social Security gives Bush some not-so-obvious advantages. It looks bold and upsets the impression that Bush is too cautious by half. It appeals to voters under 40 who are suspicious of ever getting Social Security and who have come of age in a booming stock-market environment. It appeals to the type of independent voter who sided with Arizona Sen. John McCain because it is the type of idea rarely heard from Washington pols.

Beyond that, I'm not as sure as my fellow Democrats that Bush's proposals will scare seniors all that much. Seniors will vote heavily for Democrats, although perhaps not in the overwhelming numbers they have in past years. This senior generation is better off economically then any in our history. They are more educated. They are slightly less partisan and, having heard the Democratic Social Security scare message over and over, a bit more skeptical about the Democrats' motives. Add to this that, as a group, seniors were the most negative and angry demographic group when it came to Clinton and his moral standards. Some of this is bound to stick to Gore.

So where does all this leave Bush? If his Social Security proposal appeals to independents as bold and not "politics as usual," and if seniors are not as scared by his proposal as they have been by past Republican Social Security schemes, Bush may be on to something. Of course, these are big ifs. Little else about Bush looks bold or new, so independents may not bite. If seniors are not convinced that Bush's privatization proposal is targeted at younger workers and will in no way affect the system currently serving seniors, then it will backfire on the Texas governor. Expect Gore to work overtime to spread doubts in both groups.

But beyond the specific Social Security proposal may lurk a bigger danger for Gore. Bush may have concluded that without bold proposals, he can't win. If that's the case, is a major change in the tax system next on Bush's agenda? Will he choose a really unconventional vice presidential nominee? How about amnesty for all those illegal immigrants in California? Nothing in Bush's background would indicate that big proposals like these are his idea of good politics. Unless, of course, they are consistent with another aspect of Bush's character: Do whatever it takes to win. Let's hope not.

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