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Semantics Shape Social Security Debate

Bush generally refers to "personal accounts" but said during a September speech at a Republican fundraiser in Washington that he wanted to offer younger workers "a private account that they can call their own, a private account they can pass on to the next generation, and a private account that government can't take away."

Republican officials began warning their congressional candidates against using any form of the word "private" in 2002, when Democrats seized on it to argue that the addition of individual investment accounts to Social Security would jeopardize the nation's safety net.


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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Republicans have not always resisted the term. Cato, an early champion of adding individually controlled accounts to Social Security, started a policy incubator called the "Project on Social Security Privatization" in 1995. After complaints from Republican leaders, the name was changed in 2002 to the "Project on Social Security Choice."

The other area undergoing a semantic makeover is the financial threat to the system. Bush said in his news conference before Christmas that "the crisis is here," and asserted in a recent radio address that the system is "on the road to bankruptcy." Although it will be at least a decade before the Social Security system begins to pay out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes, Vice President Cheney recently asserted that the system "is on a course to eventual bankruptcy," while White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten said the situation "is a crisis."

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, said such terminology is important, because "to develop support for major social change, the status quo has to be scarier than the change."

McInturff said the power of language in shaping public opinion on the question can be seen in polls he conducted last year. A majority of respondents said they wanted to keep the system basically the same when asked about allowing "people to invest some of their Social Security taxes in private accounts." But a majority favored change when he added the phrase "like IRAs or 401(k)s."

"It's important that the change be connected back to something familiar," he said.

Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, said any form of the word "private" suggests "a radical change to Social Security."

"People have seen lots of risks and rip-offs occur, and the virtue of Social Security is that it has been a . . . very reliable system for a very long time," Garin said.

So, according to Garin, Democrats will "do everything they can to force Republicans to live with the language of privatization."

"The debate will be a test of wills over what we call this thing," he said.


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