Rick Santorum has reason to worry about his upcoming bid for a third term as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Polls are showing him behind Democrat Bob Casey by as much as 15 points.
Santorum has been an aggressive proponent of President Bush's plan to reform Social Security by introducing personal savings accounts, and reports are that this is what is costing him political points. Proposing sweeping changes in Social Security apparently does not go over well in a state whose proportion of seniors is second-highest in the nation.
However, opposition by seniors to reform raises what should be an obvious question. There is not a single reform proposal that touches the benefits of those currently collecting Social Security. How is it, then, that these seniors either don't know, understand or believe this?
Certainly, AARP's incredibly irresponsible campaign opposing the president's initiative hasn't helped. But that does not change the fact that there appears to be zero awareness among seniors that no one has even suggested tampering with benefits of current retirees.
Early in Bush's first term, there were periodic comparisons to Ronald Reagan. The two do stand on certain common ground regarding conservative convictions. But it is clear that there is one big and important difference. Reagan was known as the "Great Communicator." The communication skills of Bush and his administration cannot be compared with those of Reagan.
Bush has just completed two months of traveling around the United States with the sole objective of selling his ideas on Social Security reform. Yet, most Americans still have very little understanding about what exactly it is that the president is proposing and, perhaps more importantly, why.
The fundamental problem, I think, is that the administration hasn't been shooting straight with the American people. The explanation for Reagan's success in communicating goes far beyond his great gift and skill in public speaking. His message was clear and simple and, most importantly, straightforward and honest.
Consider, in contrast, the name of the commission that the Bush administration set up early in the first term to make recommendations for Social Security reform. It was called "The President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security."
Is this really what this was about? Does Bush really feel that our Social Security system is so great that we need to strengthen it? If so, why is he proposing to fundamentally change it?
What is the point of personal savings accounts (don't even think about calling them private accounts)? Are they supposed to strengthen Social Security? Or, are they being proposed because Social Security is a bad deal and Americans should be permitted to keep and invest their money for retirement?
Is it any wonder that the American people are confused? What are they supposed to do with a confused message that says, on the one hand, the system is broken and a bad deal for working Americans and, on the other hand, that we need to strengthen and save it?
One of Reagan's most famous speeches was the one he gave in Germany urging that the Berlin Wall be torn down. The person who wrote the speech relates that political operatives in the White House and State Department wanted this line removed. It only stayed in because Reagan himself insisted that it remain.
Bush needs to follow Reagan's example. He should forget the political games and have confidence that if he tells the simple and honest truth to the American people, they will understand and follow his leadership.
The simple truth is that the Social Security system needs to be replaced with one in which American workers retain their own money and invest in their own retirement accounts. Our task is to devise a plan to let workers opt for personal accounts. And, in the meantime, we must tap our resources to meet existing obligations to current retirees. That's it. Clear and simple.
Americans will understand this simple truth. And a fine senator from Pennsylvania will get re-elected.
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