A skunk in the polls

Posted: May 02, 2005 12:00 AM

Atlanta, GA (UPI) Nearly every day we are bombarded with reports on television, radio and in the newspapers alleging that a majority of the public does not support President Bush's plan to restructure Social Security.

The major media outlets have based most of their headlines and stories on their own polling data. The skunk in the polls is that most media outlets are predetermining the results of their polls by asking the wrong questions. They then distort their stories to indicate that the public opposes personal retirement accounts. The question pollsters ask to determine support for personal retirement accounts rarely focuses on the accounts, but rather on the president himself and his handling of Social Security.

For example, an April 24 ABC News/Washington Post poll asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling Social Security?" 64 percent of respondents disapproved, and 31 percent approved.

An April 16 CBS News poll asked, "Do you have confidence in George W. Bush's ability to make the right decision about Social Security, or are you uneasy about his approach?" 70 percent said they were uneasy, and 25 percent were confident.

A March 18 Newsweek poll asked, "We're interested in your opinion of the way George W. Bush is handling certain aspects of his job. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling Social Security?" 59 percent disapproved, and 33 percent approved.

The only poll to consistently show support for the president's plan is the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll. The Fox poll is also the only poll that focuses solely on personal retirement accounts, and not on the president or his "handling" of Social Security.

A March 30 Fox poll asked, "Do you favor or oppose giving individuals the choice to invest a portion of their Social Security contributions in stocks or mutual funds?" On this straightforward question, 60 percent favored giving people this option, and 28 percent opposed.

Another Fox poll on April 26 asked respondents, "Thinking about Social Security contributions, do you think people under age 55 should have the right to choose between keeping all of their contributions in the current system and investing a portion of their contributions?" 79 percent answered "yes," while 13 percent answered "no."

The president's "handling" of Social Security is not the right question before the U.S. public, or the issue on which members of Congress will ultimately base their votes. The salient issue is the fact that the Social Security system in its current structure will become bankrupt soon unless Congress raises taxes, raises the retirement age, or gives younger workers the option of placing a portion of their payroll taxes in a personal retirement account.

Raising the payroll tax rate, the payroll tax cap, or the retirement age are short-term solutions that do not ultimately fix the insolvency crisis. A new system that allows personal retirement accounts will solve the crisis. That is a mathematical fact, and the public clearly desires this option when they are asked the right questions.

Some liberal media outlets and congressional Democrats must be reading the Fox poll numbers, for they have changed their tactics from rigging poll results to distorting the facts about Social Security and stating outright falsehoods.

On April 24 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an editorial titled "Tax increase will ease pain for future." The editorial argued that Bush's 2003 tax cuts are to blame for a shortfall in government revenues, which could have been used to shore up the so-called Social Security Trust Fund.

Of course, the editorial did not mention that payroll tax collections were the same in 2003 as they would have been if income tax cuts were never enacted. While Bush's income tax cuts made numerous positive improvements to the tax code, they made absolutely no changes to the payroll tax system. Income taxes and payroll taxes are two separate tax bites taken from the U.S. worker.

Congressional Democrats are also telling some great whoppers. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, recently told attendees at a town hall meeting that while the Social Security system faces no immediate crisis, future retirees and those receiving disability payments face certain benefit cuts if personal accounts are made part of the system. Neither the president's plan nor the plans already introduced in Congress will cut one penny of benefits from near and current retirees or the disabled.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., even distributed a brochure to her constituents stating that Bush's optional personal accounts plan cuts guaranteed monthly benefits, is not voluntary, and cannot be passed on to your heirs. All these claims are untrue, and are all signs of the desperate Left willing to say or do anything to prevent future generations from achieving economic prosperity.

Just this week the president wrapped up his nationwide "60 stops in 60 days" Social Security education tour, and the Senate Finance Committee opened hearings on the Social Security crisis and proposed solutions. Yet, the major liberal media outlets are creating the impression that the debate is long over and Republicans have no chance to save Social Security with optional personal retirement accounts.

The next time you read or hear a story or poll claiming to show weak public support for the personal accounts option, make sure it passes the smell test. There could be a skunk in the poll.

Herman Cain is chief executive of The New Voice, Inc. and New Voters Alliance, and host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show "The Bottom Line with Herman Cain." He is past chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and past chairman and chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, Inc.