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Semantics Shape Social Security Debate

Democrats Assail 'Crisis' While GOP Gives 'Privatization' a 'Personal' Twist

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A04

President Bush is trying to keep the word "private" from going public.

As the two parties brace for the coming debate over restructuring Social Security, polls and focus groups for both sides have shown that voters -- especially older ones, who vote in disproportionately heavy numbers -- distrust any change that has the word "private" attached to it.


Cato Institute's Michael D. Tanner said that "the term 'privatization' always polls about 20 points lower than a description of it." (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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The White House has a logical idea: Don't use the word. This is difficult because, after all, they would be "private" accounts, and Bush's plan would "partially privatize" Social Security.

So Bush and his supporters have started using "personal accounts" instead of "private accounts" to refer to his plan to let younger workers invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds. Republican officials have begun calling journalists to complain about references to "private accounts," even though Bush called them that three times in a speech last fall.

"Semantics are very important," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.)said last week when a reporter asked about "private" accounts. "They're personal accounts, not private accounts. No one is advocating privatizing Social Security."

"Don't dismiss the use of a word," Thomas added. "The use of a word is critical in making law."

Democrats have their own linguistic problem: They want to banish the term "crisis." Democratic Party leaders are urging members to discuss future Social Security shortfalls as a "challenge" rather than a crisis, and assert that Bush is trying to manufacture a crisis to justify making changes that many Democrats say are unnecessary. The White House has fired back with a transcript showing that President Bill Clinton, during a Georgetown University address in 1998, spoke of "the looming fiscal crisis in Social Security."

Republican officials also circulated a quote from the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), chairman of a Bush-appointed commission on Social Security, who in 2000 called privatization "a scare word."

The battle over the vocabulary of restructuring Social Security is the latest example of the lengths to which politicians and their consultants go to test and refine wording in an era when so many voters are influenced by the sound bites in television newscasts. Both sides have commissioned expensive research to guide their word choice as they prepare their cases.

The president's plan would allow younger Americans to divert a third or more of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts to enhance their long-term benefits.

Pollsters on both sides of the Social Security debate said they believe that semantics could be destiny, given the skittishness of lawmakers and voters about changing the popular system, which will turn 70 on Aug.14.

Michael D. Tanner, director of the Social Security project at the libertarian Cato Institute, said "the term 'privatization' always polls about 20 points lower than a description of it." "The problem is that there is no good term," Tanner said. "People have tried 'modernization' and 'personalization.' They all sink like a rock."

Reflecting the new premium being placed on language, Bush turned prickly a week ago Friday during an interview with The Washington Post aboard Air Force One when he was asked if he would talk to Senate Democrats about his "privatization plan."

"You mean the personal savings accounts?" the president scolded. "We don't want to be editorializing, at least in the questions."


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