Bush Outpoints Gore As Candidates Rattle Sabers Over Social Security

In the closing minutes of the 2000 presidential debate, George W. Bush and Al Gore finally rattled sabers over Social Security reform, the most important issue at stake in this campaign, and the one that best demonstrates the differences between the two candidates.

Bush defined it best when he asked, "Who do you trust? The government or the people?" The Bush and Gore approaches to reforming Social Security illustrate the philosophy that each man would carry with him to the White House, and shows where each man places his priorities.

It's no secret that Social Security is in trouble. In 2039, the program will run short of money and will require benefit cuts of up to a third or a payroll tax increase of almost one-half on workers. Considering the devastating effect this would have on the lives of retirees and/or the ability of future workers to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, it is no wonder that Social Security reform is one of the most important issues to Americans today.

Bush's Social Security reform plan, which he outlined again on Tuesday night, empowers people. His plan would integrate personal retirement accounts into the current Social Security system, and allow young workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes into a personal account they could own and control. The greater rate of return on the accounts and the power of compound interest will give workers a greater benefit than they can expect from the current system.

Whether you agree with his approach or not, there is no denying that Bush has a broad, long-term vision and recognizes that Social Security cannot survive past the baby boomers and beyond without meaningful structural reform. And there is no denying that he trusts people enough to put control of their retirement money in their own hands.

Bush says he will work with both Republicans and Democrats to pass Social Security reform on a bipartisan basis. Rounding up bipartisan support for personal retirement accounts won't be that difficult if he just provides the leadership that President Clinton has failed to offer over the past seven years – the bipartisan support is already there.

Indeed, Rep. Charles Stenholm (D- Texas), and Senator John Braux (D-Louisiana) to name two, support the idea of integrating personal accounts into the current system. (Even Senator Joe Lieberman supported the idea before he was drafted to be Gore's running mate.) And they are just waiting for a reform-minded president with clear goals and a will to work with both parties to enact reform.

Gore takes a different approach. He promises to pay off the national debt and credit the saved debt-service payments back to Social Security. Such an approach, according to Gore, will save the system until 2054. But it is 2055 we should be worried about. No matter how you parse it, the Vice President's plan doesn't change the structure of the current system.

In 2055, the same demographic imbalance that brings about the downfall of the current system in 2039 will still be present in 2055, after the Gore plan has run its course. Bush missed a golden opportunity to point out that, while Gore saves Social Security for the baby boomers, he does nothing for future generations. Future workers will still have to contend with astronomical taxes or oppressive benefit cuts to bring the program back into line. And the surpluses we now enjoy will have long since been spent.

It will be interesting to see if voters at Gore's campaign rallies demand that he explain why he does not trust us, the people, to control our own retirement. Hopefully he will also have to explain why he has opted for a short-term prop for the current system, but has not proposed a Social Security reform plan that saves Social Security for generations to come – a question he avoided through the three presidential debates.