Many Republicans are expressing reservations about the political wisdom of President Bush's vision for restructuring Social Security, as the White House today intensifies its campaign to restructure the entitlement program for the retired and disabled.
Bush, who relishes challenging the conventional wisdoms of Washington, has privately counseled Republicans that partially privatizing Social Security will be a boon for the GOP and has urged skeptics to hold fire until he builds a public case for change. But several influential Republicans are warning that Bush's plan could backfire on the party in next year's elections, especially if the plan includes cuts in benefits.
Most alarming to White House officials, some congressional Republicans are panning the president's plan -- even before it is unveiled. "Why stir up a political hornet's nest . . . when there is no urgency?" said Rep. Rob Simmons (Conn.), who represents a competitive district. "When does the program go belly up? 2042. I will be dead by then."
Simmons said there is no way he will support Bush's idea of allowing younger Americans to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts, especially when there are more pressing needs, such as shoring up Medicare and providing armor to U.S. troops in Iraq.
Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), a member of the GOP leadership, said 15 to 20 House Republicans agree with Simmons, although others say the number is closer to 40. "Just convincing our guys not to be timid is going to be a big struggle," he said. "It's going to take a lot of convincing," which he said can be done.
"The politics of this are brutal," one senior GOP leadership aide said, adding that the White House has yet to convince most House members that the "third rail" of American politics is somehow safe.
Outside Congress, several party activists are sounding similar alarms after word spread last week that Bush is planning to reduce future benefits as part of the restructuring. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) is warning that Republicans could lose their 10-year House majority if the White House follows through with that proposal.
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, is challenging the president's assertions that Social Security is in crisis and that Republicans will be rewarded for fixing it. Republicans are privately "bewildered why this is such a White House priority," he said. "I am a skeptic politically and a little bit substantively."
With all but a few congressional Democrats opposed to Bush's plan for private Social Security accounts, the president's ability to win over these GOP skeptics will determine whether he can accomplish his top domestic priority for the second term, White House and congressional officials said.
"This is the toughest political fight the president has ever picked," Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute said. "On the other hand, the president has never lost a fight he has wanted to win." For decades, Republicans have lost congressional votes and elections because Democrats accused them of conspiring to gut Social Security, the nearly 70-year-old program that provides the retired, the disabled and others a monthly check. For many, especially seniors, Social Security is their primary income for housing, food and insurance. Democrats' accusations often proved deadly to Republicans because seniors vote in larger percentages than younger voters.
But Bush and top strategist Karl Rove, the political force behind the Social Security plan, are convinced that the politics of Social Security have changed over the past six years -- and in a direction that could help the GOP cement a durable governing majority. In public and private talks, the president and Rove contend that voters young and old realize Social Security is near financial ruin and are receptive to allowing Americans to voluntarily divert some of their payroll taxes, which are earmarked for Social Security, to private investment accounts.
There is empirical data to support their thesis. Bush touted the issue in both presidential campaigns. Dozens of House and Senate Republicans successfully did the same in the 2002 and 2004 elections.
"I think it can help in '06 and going forward," said the incoming Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman. Pointing to successful campaigns in North Carolina, New Hampshire and Kentucky, he said, "If you look at the history of it, candidates that have approached it the way George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole and John Sununu and Anne Northup did -- all four in very different elections, in very different places -- have been successful."
This view is supported by many congressional Republicans, who, like Rove, see an even bigger payoff for Republicans in the long term. They believe Bush can do for Republicans what Franklin D. Roosevelt did for Democrats when he proposed the program more than seven decades ago: create a generation of voters who see them as the guardian of their retirement program.