NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Carol James, a senior clerk typist in this township's tax assessor's office, had listened to snippets of President Bush's speeches and was convinced that Social Security "is in trouble right now" and that creating new individual investment accounts might be a good way to help young workers "do something for themselves."
But after attending a nearly three-hour town meeting here on Saturday where Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) ripped into the president's proposal, James had changed her tune. "I feel a lot better about Social Security," she said. "People should listen to Rush Holt instead of getting so panicky about their Social Security."
Holt, a plasma physicist turned politician, provided an out-of-town preview of the opposition Democrats are preparing to mount against Bush's plan for restructuring the Social Security system, the signature issue of his second term.
Beginning next weekend, during the Presidents' Day congressional recess, Democrats plan to hold hundreds of hometown Social Security events across the country as a partial counterweight to Bush's relentless barnstorming on Air Force One.
Democrats at one time considered offering an alternative plan -- probably emphasizing tax-preferred savings. But with Republican leaders now urging Bush to provide only a broad outline of his plan and to leave the details to the GOP-controlled Congress, top Democratic lawmakers intend to hold back on their ideas for now and instead hammer away at Bush's proposal.
At the town meeting here, Holt stressed that the 70-year-old Social Security system has been one of the most successful federal social programs, keeping millions of Americans out of poverty and preserving the dignity of generations of widows and orphans. Second, he warned that Bush and his GOP allies are overstating the system's long-term problems of insolvency and are proposing a risky solution that would make them worse, not better.
"I think this is a loser for the president," said Holt, 56, a four-term Democrat. "I think that if they pursue this, as I believe they will, they'll be stung badly."
Holt began his town meeting in a modern, wood-paneled courtroom in North Brunswick by personalizing the debate. He noted that his father (a former U.S. senator, a fact Holt did not mention) had died when he was 6, "without insurance, without a pension." Holt said that he, his sister and a cousin who lived with them "received Social Security survivors' benefits, and it made a difference," as his mother toiled at a junior college.
Holt said he was not reassured by Bush's assertion that under his plan, older Americans would be unaffected by the changes and that only younger workers would be subject to the restructured program.
"If we don't change the program," Holt said, "anybody 25 and above is fine -- is fine! The president says, 'I'm going to change things so those 25 to 55 have to worry.' Is that a gain?"
Meanwhile, Democrats also plan to use last week's revelations about the growing projected cost of a new Medicare prescription drug benefit as evidence that Bush cannot be trusted on Social Security. "Have you noticed that every reform means you pay more, and Wall Street and the pharmaceutical companies walk out with more profit?" said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee. "That's what we're going to hit him with."
Trying to exploit Republican trepidation, House Democratic leaders said in a recent memo to the party's lawmakers that they should "have already scheduled at least one Social Security Town Hall in your district in the month of February," and urged them to "mail postcards to targeted constituents" and "network with local senior centers."
Republican congressional leaders are arming the rank and file with videotapes and PowerPoint presentations making Bush's case on Social Security, and the White House is sending top officials to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for a clinic to answer questions before the lawmakers head for their states and districts. Party strategists said Republicans will return to the Capitol either chastened or emboldened.
So the parties' competing town hall meetings during the Presidents' Day break will be a milestone in the Social Security momentum battle.