Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias Remember in the presidential debates shortly before the November 2000 election, when Al Gore said he would protect Social Security in a lock box?

George W. Bush responded by telling us that he would support a policy that would allow Americans to invest part of their contributions to Social Security in the private sector.

The private sector, he argued, would bring citizens a better return on their investments. It would, in turn, help save Social Security.

That was two years ago. Suddenly, privatization of Social Security doesn�t seem like such a good idea.

Bush�s campaign to allow Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in the stock market is losing support among Republican congressional candidates, as Wall Street�s sinking prices reinforce worries about the proposal.

Amid sharp attacks by the Democratic Party, several GOP incumbents and challengers are coming out against Bush�s plan for partial privatization of the popular, taxpayer-funded retirement program.

Fueling the shift is the stock market�s recent plunge, which has reminded voters of the risks of investing in stocks, rather than in other financial instruments that guarantee safe but modest returns.

The president continues to call for giving workers the right to direct a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes to stocks or other investments by creating personal savings accounts. Bush first extolled the plan near the peak of the last decade�s remarkable bull market; he says Wall Street�s frequently impressive returns should boost Social Security as well as nongovernment retirement programs.

In some cases, GOP lawmakers are opposing Bush�s proposal after praising it in the past. At least three Republican congressional challengers � Rick Clayburgh (ND), Jon Porter (NV) and our own William Janklow � have disavowed the idea of private accounts. Many other Republicans are playing down previous endorsements of privatizing all or part of Social Security as a way to bolster the system before it goes broke.

We have to agree that Bush�s plans for Social Security seem to be a bit too risky. We hope that eventually he backs away from his position on this issue.

We also hope that Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. John Thune follow that same path. For it appears that currently, their respective U.S. Senate campaigns are failing to do little more than try to scare the heck out of seniors and others that have grown to rely on the Social Security system.

Although corporate accountability was the hot topic in Washington in July, Democratic rhetoric on Social Security is often even hotter on the campaign trail this month, according to lawmakers and strategists in numerous races across the country.

With many 401(k) retirement plans losing value because of their faltering stock holdings, Social Security checks are more important than ever to retirees and older workers. The idea of investing part of that money in the stock market, which looked so attractive when Wall Street was booming, now appears foolish to many seniors � and politicians.

Hopefully, Thune took advantage of the president�s visit to South Dakota this week to clarify just where he stands on this issue. Is he in Bush�s camp when it comes to privatization?

It certainly doesn�t sound like it, from the tone of his recent campaign ads.

Thune will not say whether he supports the president�s plan, but he has run advertisements attacking Johnson for suggesting in the 1990s that the government invest some of the funds in the stock market.

Johnson has said he no longer supports such a move, and has called the ads �an outrage� because they imply he still holds that position.

It�s time for Thune to come out and tell South Dakotans where he stands. And it�s time for Johnson to stop getting all worked up. If he (Johnson) doesn�t support privatization, simply tell us that. Don�t make a federal case out of it.

It�s time for both men to stop playing political games with our state�s senior citizens.

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