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No Light at the End of the Tour

By Dana Milbank
Saturday, April 30, 2005; Page A07

President Bush's "60 stops in 60 days" campaign to promote his Social Security proposals ends tomorrow, and the Treasury Department marked the occasion by sending out a list of statistics, among them: 127 cities visited by administration officials, more than 500 radio interviews given by administration officials.

The liberal Center for American Progress retaliated with its own stats: 38 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of Social Security before the tour, and 31 percent approve at the end of the tour.

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Social Security

With such a high-minded debate underway, it should come as no surprise that the finale of the tour -- President Bush and Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) holding dueling events near Falls Church -- would be true to form. Bush tried to persuade his audience that Social Security would stop making payments if nothing was done. And Moran accused Bush of destroying the system.

Bush, who announced a potentially explosive plan Thursday night that would restore the system's solvency by cutting benefits for 70 percent of future retirees, gave only one sentence to the proposal in a 44-minute speech, and even then he said nothing about the cuts. When one of the panelists at his roundtable thanked him for trying "to reduce the rate of growth of benefits," the president ignored the remark.

Moran, meanwhile, alternated between praising Bush's ideas -- "I'm not opposed to means testing," he said -- and pummeling Bush for ruining the program by turning economic classes against each other.

The mixed messages reflect the awkward state of the volatile debate. Bush, having put his proposal on the table Thursday night, had no wish to draw attention to the fact that he favors cutting Social Security spending by $3 trillion over 75 years. And Democrats are wary of appearing to be the party that says "No" and lacks ideas of its own.

As a result, the president and Moran painted portraits that frequently ranged beyond the facts.

Bush, for his part, asserted that Social Security would go flat broke in 2041: "In other words, you're working all your life, you're putting money in, and by the time it comes for you to get ready to retire, there's nothing there." Yet, even if politicians do nothing about Social Security, it would pay out nearly 75 percent of promised benefits after 2041.

At the Democrats' event, Moran was creating an alternative reality. In a recreation-center meeting room scented by chlorine from a nearby pool, people wore anti-privatization stickers and displayed signs asserting that Bush wanted to cut individuals' benefits by $152,000 -- a figure based on a liberal group's analysis of a Bush "plan" that did not exist.

Discussing Bush's plan to erase 70 percent of the Social Security shortfall, Moran said, to laughter: "He fixes 70 percent of the problem that he creates" by setting up private accounts. "Honestly." Or maybe not. In the long run, the personal accounts don't have anything to do with the system's $4 trillion projected shortfall -- and they may even help reduce it.

Yesterday's final duel of the 60-day tour became an exchange of hyperbole, with the congressman playing Pollyanna to the president's Cassandra. The Democrat acted as if fixing Social Security could be accomplished over lunch. "We could do that, we could do that tomorrow, we could do that this afternoon," Moran said. "There are plenty of ways of doing that." True enough, but his party has been determined not to offer a plan. Bush, meanwhile, warned his audience that "it is conceivable that if we do nothing, that the payroll tax will get up to 18 percent for younger Americans." Technically true, but that would happen in 2080 -- when virtually everybody alive today would be retired or dead -- and nobody is proposing to leave the problem unsolved for 75 years.

Speaking of 75 years, Bush criticized the 1983 Social Security changes that were supposed to keep the system afloat for that long. "The problem is, 22 years after 1983, we're still talking about it," he said. "The 75-year fix lasted about 22 years." Actually, with Social Security forecast to remain solvent through 2041, the fix will have lasted 58 years.

With both sides testing the bounds of reason, it is not surprising that people listening to this were confused -- and distrustful of both sides. Larry Forseth, in the audience for Bush's event, said he voted for the president last year but didn't know what to think about the Social Security debate. He's worried about the Bush plan: "If I've been working hard for it, why should I be the one to get my benefit cut?" He adds, however: "Something has to happen, but the Democrats aren't offering an alternative. They're just fighting against it."

Greg Fulton, another Bush voter who came to hear the president, was similarly torn. "I can sort of see both sides," he said. About one thing, however, Fulton was pretty confident. With congressional elections coming next year and the two sides so far apart on Social Security, "there's too short of a time for anything to really happen."

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