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Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 2003 / 5 Elul, 5763

Michael Barone

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Prez has knack for reframing |
George W. Bush has the habit of changing the subject--using a moment when all eyes are on him to frame issues in a new way, one that maximizes public support and consigns the opposition's (and the press's) preoccupations to irrelevancy. This is exactly what he did in defining the axis of evil in last year's State of the Union address and in raising the question, nine months later, of whether the United Nations would enforce its own resolutions on Iraq. So he is likely to do it once again in the 14 months before the presidential election next year. Here are two predictions of how he will do so.

The first concerns weapons of mass destruction, the issue the press and the Democrats have been nattering about lately. On July 31, David Kay, the official in charge of the search for WMDs in Iraq, testified in closed hearings on Capitol Hill and met with Bush in the White House. Kay is a tough-minded former United Nations weapons inspector. "We are finding documents that relate to WMD activities," Kay told reporters. "Physical evidence we have found."

Some time this fall, perhaps soon, Kay is likely to present a comprehensive report, with copious evidence, outlining Saddam Hussein's banned weapons programs. It's likely to be convincing; as Kay told NBC News's Tom Brokaw on July 15, "We do have a great desire to be sure that when we put it out for the American public, there will be absolutely no doubt about its meaning." Bush will let Kay have the spotlight momentarily. But soon after, look for him to take advantage of a high-visibility moment to reframe the issues in the war against terrorism. One occasion may be his annual September speech at the United Nations. Bush doesn't usually provide many hints about what he'll say when he changes the subject. My guess is that he will challenge the nations of the Middle East to act against terrorism and move toward democracy and human rights.

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My second prediction is that Bush will put the spotlight, probably in his 2004 State of the Union speech, on his proposal for individual investment accounts in Social Security. Assuming Congress passes a Medicare bill this fall, this would be the only one of the four major domestic planks in his 2000 platform on which action has not been taken. Bush is known to believe that this was a winning issue for him in 2000. He will pledge, as he did then, not to change the benefits of current Social Security recipients and those due to reach retirement age soon. His focus will be on the young and whether the system will be there for them. The Social Security trustees estimate that Social Security payouts will exceed revenues in 2018. They estimate further that the Social Security trust funds will be exhausted and no longer able to pay full benefits in 2042. I see Bush arguing that changes must be made now to make sure benefits are available when young people retire.

Democrats disagree. In the Clinton years, many Democrats took a favorable view of individual investment accounts in Social Security. But since 2000, they have lined up in lockstep and opposed all changes. They are convinced the issue works for them, even though they have a hard time identifying a single race it won for them in 2002. Republican candidates like Elizabeth Dole have presented detailed plans for individual investment accounts. Her opponent, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, opposed all change and said the system was in fine shape until 2037. If, like Bowles, you were born in the 1940s, 2037 sounds like a long way off, a year you'll never see. But if you're 30 years old, it sounds like about the time you're going to retire. On the stump, Dole liked to say, "Here's Erskine Bowles's plan for Social Security." Then she held up a blank sheet of paper.

Many Republicans in Congress are afraid of the Social Security issue, and some have said that they oppose "privatization"--the term Democrats like to use. But polls have shown large margins in favor of individual investment accounts, even when the stock market was tanking. Look for Bush to frame Social Security not as an old person's issue but as a young one's--and for Social Security to be a big issue in the contest next year for the White House.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone