Ballot Box

The Stretch Run

MILWAUKEE–As George W. put it Monday morning at an airport terminal in Kansas City, Mo., where he addressed a cheering throng, “We’re in the stretch run.”

The “one-on-one” session, which is what the Bush campaign calls forums at which the governor not only reads a speech from a TelePrompTer but also entertains a few friendly questions, marked the debut of his newest campaign theme: “Barnstorm for Reform.” This isn’t just a slogan, it’s a logo, too–a silhouette of a Wright-Brothers-type flying machine. The term “barnstorming” refers to the practice of old-time aviators who would fly from town to town performing stunts in crop-dusters. The Bush campaign means it to apply to the 28 Republican governors who are now traversing the country on Bush’s behalf in seven teams. It might also be thought to refer to Bush himself, who is keeping up a more aggressive schedule lately, appearing at as many as three campaign events a day–today in Kansas City; Des Moines, Iowa; and Milwaukee. For Bush, the equivalent of an aerial stunt is uttering a grammatical English sentence by late afternoon.

The first team of barnstormers was with Bush this morning. It included Bob Taft of Ohio, Kenny Guinn of Nevada, Bill Graves of Kansas, and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. These supporters serve a dual purpose. As colleagues, they vouch for Bush and his pragmatic, bipartisan approach to governing. And as surrogates, they can make attacks on Al Gore that are too caustic for Bush to make himself. “We have one candidate who will make history in America and another who makes up history every time he gets up,” Gov. Huckabee said, by way of introducing the Republican nominee.

Bush slammed Gore too, but in a somewhat more understated, semi-clever way. “For seven and a half years, the vice president has been the second-biggest obstacle to reform in America,” Bush said. “And now he wants to be the biggest–the obstacle in chief.” That’s how the prepared text read. Bush muffed the delivery by pausing for the applause after the word “biggest.” He then had to make the “obstacle-in-chief” line a separate sentence, ruining his sound bite for broadcast purposes. But Bush had a bunch of other barbed comments as well. He said the administration came in with ringing promises “and is now leaving with a sigh.” He charged Gore with supporting “an iffy tax scheme”–one in which “you get some things you want, but only if you do everything the government wants.” And in case you forgot Gore’s performance in the first debate, he described his opponent as an advocate of “meddling, overbearing government.”

The governor’s most important task at the moment is to deflect Gore’s Social Security charge. Gore has been getting traction, as they say, with his (valid) argument that Bush spends $1 trillion of the surplus twice, counting the cost of his system of personal retirement accounts. Bush is addressing this potentially lethal Democratic assault in two ways. The first way is to portray the conflict on the issue as one of reform versus the reactionary status quo. “They call it the ‘third rail’ of American politics–the one that shocks you when you touch it,” Bush said in Kansas City. “They’ve been saying that forever, as the problems of Social Security have got worse. But if you don’t touch it, you can’t fix it.” Bush made the point more explicit at a huge afternoon rally in Milwaukee, where he met up with his wife, Cindy McCain, Conde Rice, and Lynne Cheney, who are barnstorming as part of a separate “W Is for Women” tour. “In order to make sure there’s a Social Security system tomorrow, we better allow younger workers to take some of their own money,” he said. 

Bush also supplemented this defense of his Social Security proposal with a new charge against Gore’s plan. Where Gore accuses him of misplacing $1 trillion, he accuses Gore of wanting to spend $40 trillion to shore up the Social Security trust fund with government IOUs. “Forty trillion dollars is a lot of money, even for someone who has been in Washington most of his life,” Bush said. He went on to note that this “Gore debt” would require a payroll tax increase of 34 percent in 2015. He said this would mean that a family making $40,000 would owe another $1,700 in taxes. He should have said $17,000, but who’s counting?

Bush’s Social Security maneuver may make some political sense. Casting his plan as repair for a system in jeopardy makes it sound responsible and necessary. Meanwhile, the $40 trillion complaint turns the table on his accuser and makes a missing trillion seem like pocket change. Both points are, however, entirely specious. Facing up to the long-term shortfall in Social Security requires either reducing benefits one way or another (such as raising the retirement age or reducing cost-of-living increases), or increasing payroll taxes, or doing some combination of these things. This is the real third rail, which neither Gore nor Bush is prepared to grasp before the election, and maybe not even after. Creating individual accounts, whether a sensible idea or not, simply fails to address the long-term insolvency of Social Security. It’s a separate issue.

As for the $40 trillion charge, it’s a red herring. This figure is based on a Congressional Budget Office estimate of the cumulative amount of general revenue that could theoretically be transferred to Social Security accounts over the next 50 years. It is, in fact, simply a projection of how large the Social Security shortfall will be if nothing is done about the problem for the next several decades. But Gore and Bill Clinton haven’t suggested solving the problem for 50 years with the transfer of general tax revenues; Gore proposes transferring a mere $2 trillion from budget surpluses over the next 20 years. Bush has proposed transferring a smaller amount. But eventually both would face–or choose to ignore–the long-term shortfall. For now, Gore makes the problem worse in a minor way with small benefit increases. Bush makes it worse in a somewhat more substantial way by hastening the day that Social Security becomes technically bankrupt. His accounts might reduce government’s $40 trillion unfounded liability somewhat in the far-off future, but they wouldn’t by any means eliminate it.

But because the issue is complicated, and because the governor’s charge is a distortion and not a lie, it may solve the problem at hand. Bush doesn’t need to win the argument on Social Security. He just has to change the topic from his irresponsibility to Gore’s.