The Magazine

An Emerging Reform Majority?

From the January 24, 2005 issue: On Social Security, Bush seeks a third way around the third rail.

Jan 24, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 18 • By FRED BARNES
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All this leaves the White House in search of what Republican representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a key player on the Social Security issue, calls a "third way" solution. The White House has a month to six weeks to develop one. The president, by being unspecific about what he will ultimately propose, has left himself negotiating room. Currently, the White House is inching toward a proposal that would slow the growth of benefits slightly (but nothing close to 40 percent), either raise the $90,000 ceiling on income subject to payroll taxes (but far, far short of the $200,000 recommended by Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina), or not raise it at all and create investment accounts funded by 2 to 4 percent of income now paid in payroll taxes.

Of course, details would be negotiable on Capitol Hill.

That basic scheme may not thrill Republicans, but they'll have to embrace some version of it to achieve the one goal they all agree on--individual investment accounts. On this, there has indeed been a paradigm shift. Every poll I've seen shows strong support except among the elderly for such accounts. A Zogby poll cited by Gingrich in his new book, Winning the Future, found that 68 percent of Americans favor "changing the system" to allow for investment accounts. Also, prominent Republicans--Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire is one--who've run on investment accounts have won. So Social Security is no longer an untouchable third rail.

Bush can't ignore Democratic attacks entirely. By focusing on benefit "cuts" or bigger budget deficits caused by Social Security reform, Democrats could frighten queasy Republicans. But obstructionism hasn't served Democrats well in recent elections. Opposing Bush's plan for a Department of Homeland Security cost them the 2002 election. Blocking judicial nominees was critical in Tom Daschle's defeat last year. Voting against $87 billion for the Iraq war doomed John Kerry's presidential bid. Opposing Social Security reform may be less risky. But maybe not.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.