President Bush devoted a fifth of last night's televised address to his call to change Social Security, but he appeared to win few, if any, Democrats to his side, and even some key Republicans said they still want more details about his plans.
Perhaps no Democrat plays a more pivotal role, for now at least, than Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who has expressed more willingness to work with the president than has any other senator in his party. But he said the speech did little to advance the debate, even though Bush said he would consider almost any idea other than raising payroll taxes.
"There are a lot of details that need to be laid out," Nelson said in an interview after the speech. Some of the missing details "are wonkish," Nelson said, referring to actuarial tables and such, but he said he hopes Bush will dive into them when he visits Omaha tomorrow.
Nebraska is one of five politically competitive states the president is visiting today and tomorrow in hopes of moving a few Democratic senators into his camp. Unless he succeeds, Democratic leaders say, they will have enough votes to kill the bid for private accounts in Social Security.
While Nelson's tones were measured, some of his more liberal colleagues assailed Bush's speech, saying the president did not help his cause at all. "I can't believe he closed by citing FDR," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), referring to the Democrat who signed Social Security into law. "I think that was crass."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the State of the Union address will not change widespread impressions that Bush is calling for dramatic changes to a popular program that needs only some well-targeted tweaks. "The president wants radical changes," Schumer said as he left the Capitol. "The American people do not."
Even a few key Republicans seemed notably restrained in their praise of Bush's comments. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate's point person on Social Security, issued a statement that went no further than "I give the president credit for taking on a controversial issue. . . . It's our responsibility to address this issue right now, before the situation gets worse."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) , who has urged Bush to consider applying the Social Security payroll tax to high incomes that are exempted now, said: "The president's focus on Social Security as a national problem demonstrates his willingness to lead where others have chosen to demagogue. . . . But we need to be candid about the costs and willing to make the tough choices that real reform will require."
Other Republicans, however, were more enthusiastic. They described the speech as the kickoff for a battle that worries many of them but that they are now committed to fight ferociously. "It's time to get to work," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said the speech made him feel the most buoyant since the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The address, he predicted, will galvanize waverers. "It's going to be a struggle, but I'm really looking forward to it," Dreier said.
Such enthusiasm did not seem to cross the political aisle. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a deputy whip for her party, said she does not think Bush "changed one Democratic mind." His suggestion that the program could go bankrupt is "simply not true," she said, adding: "The president has put out a solution in search of a problem. All we heard from the president tonight was more unfounded claims."
Indeed, as the president spoke in the House chamber, several Democrats hissed and rumbled "no, no, no" during some of his assertions about Social Security.
But simply taking pot shots at Bush's plan will not be enough as the national debate gets fully underway, some Democrats said. Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) said he talked to eight or nine colleagues who were disappointed that Bush did not spell out how he would pay for his plan.
"That said, the Democrats are going to have to get a better message on Social Security," Ford said. He added that part of the solution might be tax-deferred savings accounts. "Our only response cannot be to say, ' No.' "