Friday, January 14, 2005

Social Security Push to Tap the GOP Faithful
Social Security Push to Tap the GOP Faithful
Campaign's Tactics Will Drive Appeal

By Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page A06

President Bush plans to reactivate his reelection campaign's network of donors and activists to build pressure on lawmakers to allow workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, according to Republican strategists.

White House allies are launching a market-research project to figure out how to sell the plan in the most comprehensible and appealing way, and Republican marketing and public-relations gurus are building teams of consultants to promote it, the strategists said.

The campaign will use Bush's campaign-honed techniques of mass repetition, never deviating from the script and using the politics of fear to build support -- contending that a Social Security financial crisis is imminent when even Republican figures show it is decades away.

Bush aides said that in addition to mobilizing the Republican faithful and tapping the power of business, they plan to target minority voters who have not been able to afford to save and might be open to the argument that the president's plan would turn them into investors. The campaign will also court younger voters, including many Democrats, who would potentially benefit the most from the change.

The president plans to ask Congress to allow younger Americans to put at least one-third of the 6.2 percent payroll tax into private accounts, which will offer a set number of investment options similar to the thrift savings plans provided to federal workers. The administration has also signaled that it will propose changing the formula that sets initial Social Security benefit levels, cutting promised benefits by nearly a third in the coming decades.

With resistance hardening among congressional Republicans, the White House is escalating efforts to get Social Security restructured this year. There will be campaign-style events to win support and precision targeting of districts where lawmakers could face reelection difficulties. As Republicans signaled earlier, they have begun hard-hitting television ads to discredit opponents and prop up the Bush plan.

The same architects of Bush's political victories will be masterminding the new campaign, led by political strategists Karl Rove at the White House and Ken Mehlman at the Republican National Committee.

Bush set the tone for campaign-style lobbying earlier this week with a speech promoting his plan. Yesterday, during an appearance at Catholic University, Vice President Cheney sought to counter opponents' arguments about the risks of the plan, saying that limiting investment options should keep the accounts safe, while harnessing the power of the stock market should provide a far higher rate of return than Social Security reserves now receive.

"Young workers who elect personal accounts can expect to receive a far higher rate of return on their money than the current system could ever afford to pay them," Cheney told an audience of college students and administrators.

This morning, White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten will begin courting business on the issue with a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And that is all before Bush takes the oath of office for a second term on Thursday and delivers his State of the Union address on Feb. 2.

Mehlman, who was the Bush-Cheney campaign manager and is the RNC's incoming chairman, said the campaign apparatus -- from a national database of 7.5 million e-mail activists, 1.6 million volunteers and hundreds of thousands of neighborhood precinct captains -- will be used to build congressional support for Bush's plans, starting with Social Security.

"There are a lot of tools we used in the '04 campaign, from regional media to research to rapid response to having surrogates on television," he said. "That whole effort will be focused on the legislative agenda."

Democrats, scrambling to organize in the face of a multimillion-dollar juggernaut, have yet to settle on any particular counterargument but said they believe Bush's rollout of the idea has been rocky and new details will give them more ammunition.

"When they put their plan on paper, the numbers will not add up," said Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.). "All these plans will cost more than just coming up with the money to fix the present system. They can spin them and spin them, but that will not change."

Mehlman called the struggle over Social Security "a tremendous opportunity to reach out to African Americans, Latino Americans and others who don't yet have full access to the American dream."

"People who can't save can actually earn some compound interest," he said. "Having the debate helps you build the party."

In addition to their own efforts, White House and RNC officials are working closely with the same outside groups that helped Bush win reelection in 2004, especially Progress for America, a political organization with close ties to Rove. RNC officials have privately told top congressional aides they will work with Progress for America and others to provide political cover through television ads supporting the Bush position and condemning those who oppose it. To coincide with Bush's new drive, Progress for America is running a television ad on Fox and CNN that compares Bush to Franklin Roosevelt, the father of Social Security.

The group also phoned or e-mailed Republicans, culled from its list of more than 1 million supporters, to enlist their help in selling the Bush plan, either by donating money or talking up the plan to neighbors. Brian McCabe, a spokesman for the group, said it is applying the lessons it learned electing a president to selling a public policy.

One lesson was "realizing the importance of getting information in front of a lot of people," he said. "When it comes to Social Security, for instance, few know even the basic facts."

Once the debate intensifies, Progress for America and other pro-Bush groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers plan to target individual congressional members with the precision of an election campaign.

"We have through CNN and Fox painted with broad brushes," McCabe said. "Over time, we will take our messages inside states and communicate with individual members."

Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.