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    George W. may have hurt himself with bad specifics

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    By TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


    George W. Bush was all smiles as he left St. Louis last week.

    After all, he had survived the debates, the mileposts of a presidential campaign that he and his father like about as much as they like Bill Clinton. But now it turns out the Texas governor might have wounded himself.

    The damage didn't come from his overstated support for a patient's bill of rights in Texas. Or his mushy answer on affirmative action. It came when the candidate who has an aversion to numbers and details got very specific about Social Security.

    Bush acknowledged his plan to let younger workers divert a portion of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private investment accounts could take $1-trillion over the next 10 years out of the expected surplus in the Social Security trust fund.

    "People will get paid," Bush said during the debate, referring to older workers and retirees. "But if you're a younger worker, if you're younger, you better hope this country thinks differently or you will be faced with huge payroll taxes, reduced benefits -- and you bet we'll take a trillion dollars of your own money and let you invest it under safe guidelines so you get a better rate of return on the money than the government gets for you today."

    Oops.

    That was like handing Gore a silver bullet just as the vice president was running low on ammunition.

    The day after the debate, the Democratic National Committee debuted a new ad that argues Bush can't both guarantee older workers and retirees their existing Social Security benefits and divert payroll taxes into private investment accounts for younger workers.

    The new ad, already airing in other battleground states, will be on in Florida any day. That is the last thing Bush needed here as he battles Gore for the state's 25 electoral votes.

    A St. Petersburg Times poll by Schroth & Associates earlier this month indicated most Floridians support Bush's concept on Social Security. But seniors were sharply divided, and they may make up one in three voters on Election Day. Gore already was leading Bush among those voters, 51 percent to 40 percent.

    The new television ad by the Democrats and hotter rhetoric from Gore could drive those numbers even higher. That would cost Bush the state he needs to win if he is to win the White House.

    Few senior voters, or anyone else, are familiar with many of the numbers Gore and Bush throw around as routinely as other folks talk about the chance of rain. But many seniors know this: They don't like anyone tinkering with Social Security.

    There are a couple of oddities about Bush's new math on Social Security.

    The Texas governor's proposal has been conceptual from the start. Now suddenly he's acknowledging he would take $1-trillion of the $2.4-trillion surplus expected from the Social Security trust fund over the next decade to help pay for the new investment accounts.

    That caught even his own aides off-guard.

    "I don't know why he said what he said," Lawrence Lindsey, the governor's chief economic adviser, told the Washington Post the day after the debate.

    In fact, Bush didn't offer up this detail weeks ago when he totaled up his proposed tax cuts and spending to argue that he wouldn't exceed the expected surplus. At countless rallies, he said the Social Security surplus generally would be used to reduce the debt and shore up the entitlement program.

    And when reporters asked about the transition costs of adding the private investment accounts, they were given vague answers about what might happen after 2020.

    The other secret is that workers likely would see their Social Security benefits reduced by at least a portion of the profits they make in their private investment accounts. That would help offset the diversion of some payroll taxes from the entitlement program into the private accounts. But Bush goes right on reassuring voters at rallies that the private accounts will be their money, not the government's, and that they could pass on the savings to their kids.

    It was no surprise that the private investment accounts were going to cost the Social Security system money right away. But last week was the first time Bush himself said how much money and from where.

    "Even his own advisers know this is a big problem for him," said Gore consultant Bob Shrum. "It was always a mysterious trillion dollars out there and he would never say where it came from."

    So what's changed?

    Now Gore isn't just shadow-boxing. He has something concrete to attack in the last two weeks of the campaign. The vice president would use all of the Social Security surplus to pay down the federal debt, then use the savings from lower interest payments to shore up the existing system. He will tell voters every day from now until the election that Bush can't deliver on his promises to both younger workers and retirees.

    "Which promise is he going to break?" Gore asked in a speech last week. "Who gets left out in the cold?"

    Bush insists that there will be enough money.

    "Where we see a vision of hope," he said, "the Democrats will wage a campaign of fear."

    But it might work.

    Gore carved up Bill Bradley's health care proposal during the primaries by picking apart the specifics and distorting them until the idea sounded ridiculously far-fetched. The new attack on Bush is from the same playbook.

    Bradley tried to respond with similar detail that took too long to explain. But Bush takes a different approach. He broadly paints Gore as a politician who exaggerates and can't be trusted.

    But if Bush loses the election, one of the reasons will be his trillion-dollar slip of the tongue.

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