February 05, 2005

As Montana Goes...

I'm no expert on developing political messages—in fact, my suspicion is that I'd be very, very bad at it—but this New York Times passage describing the Social Security chatter in Montana seems to suggest something:
The anxiety and confusion were palpable in the crowd, which was composed mostly of retirees - the very group assured by Mr. Bush, again and again, that they would not be affected. Why change the program so fundamentally, several asked. Sylvia Stugelmeyer, a retired courthouse worker, declared: "I'm against the privatization of Social Security. It was put into a trust for us many years ago, and I hope to God it stays that way."

Doris Lundin, 77, demanded, "How much money has the government spent from Social Security and put in IOU's?" As the audience applauded, she added, "And why can't they pay it back?"
First, a bit of slightly-related context. One of the most amazing, and amazingly underreported, political trends over the past decade has been the decline in voters who distrust big government. If you look at this recent Pew poll, the number of Republicans who think government is "wasteful and inefficient" has dropped from 74 percent in 1994 to 49 percent today. So I don't think President Bush is going to get much traction out of the fact that Social Security is a massive government program. His whole "ownership" angle might catch on, though. But that seems very quickly neutralized if Democrats simply note that, by eroding or defaulting on the Trust Fund, the government is taking away something it "put into trust for us many years ago". So much for ownership. Even seniors in Montana seem to understand this concept. The debate here isn't big government vs. individualism, it's about a particular president who wants to use government to confiscate the Trust Fund.

Max Baucus also gets his message exactly right. It's not just that private accounts will hurt Social Security's finances in some general sense. It's that they'll chip away at the Trust Fund's finances, which will put in danger even those benefits for people over 55. No one is safe.
-- Brad Plumer 7:11 PM || ||