Santorum Out-Bushes Bush Team on Social Security

Posted September 26, 2005 at 6:37pm

While many in the GOP these days are running away from the issue of overhauling Social Security, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) persists in keeping the issue alive — so much so that he’s invited the ire of the very administration that proposed the plan in the first place.

Indeed, Bush allies are beginning to push back against Santorum’s widely publicized criticism that President Bush bungled the rollout of his plan for Social Security by not following the advice of Santorum, among others. [IMGCAP(1)]

“The president did essentially what [Santorum] was talking about. I don’t know why he’s pinging the White House,” said a GOP source with knowledge of the administration’s thinking.

Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders continue to deflect questions about the prospects for Social Security legislation this year by making their plans contingent on action in the opposite chamber.

Last week, Santorum — who faces a tough re-election fight next year amid sinking home state popularity according to some polls — told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he didn’t understand President Bush’s decision to take on “the sacred cow of the [political] left” so soon after the 2004 election and that he had urged the Bush team to at least come up with a plan to influence public opinion as early as December 2004.

“You’ve just defeated your opponent, and you know, you take a 3-iron to the beehive,” he reportedly said. “You go out there and whack the beehive, and you wonder why all these bees are buzzing around your head. And not only do you whack the beehive, but then you don’t do anything more for two months.”

Following the election, Santorum and his staff had suggested developing a public relations plan during December 2004, with a rollout in January 2005, while simultaneously working to get key Members of Congress on board with a legislative plan that could have been announced around mid-March.

GOP insiders defended the administration by saying that Bush did hit the ground running after announcing his intent to push personal investment accounts under Social Security the day after winning the November 2004 election. Bush also held a widely publicized economic forum in mid-December, at which he outlined his principles for Social Security reform.

However, those insiders acknowledged that the White House got distracted in late December by the devastating tsunami that hit southeast Asia and by preparations for Bush’s late-January inauguration. Despite those diversions, news reports during January show that Bush held what The Washington Post called “a talk-show-style conversation with supporters” on Jan. 11. White House aides also blanketed Capitol Hill and the airwaves to talk, mostly in generalities, about Bush’s proposal, during the month of January.

Still, the Post also reported on Jan. 7 that Republicans were divided on how to proceed on Social Security, with many in Congress urging the president to do more in laying out his plan. Again on Jan. 28, a Post headline read, “Bush Faces Skepticism From Republicans On Hill.”

Once Bush’s broad principles for Social Security changes were announced in the February State of the Union speech, Bush went on a two-month national tour, holding scripted town hall-style meetings to persuade Americans that Social Security was fast becoming insolvent and that personal accounts would be its savior.

By all accounts, Bush was successful in convincing the public that Social Security is in financial trouble. But he has still not been able to make the sale on his idea to allow younger workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts.

In an interview Monday, Santorum said he would “stand by” his comments, explaining that the administration’s failure to sell the American public on Social Security reform can be traced back to the more than two months that elapsed between Bush’s announcement in November 2004 that he would “spend” his “political capital” on a Social Security overhaul and the official kickoff of his campaign for Social Security reform in the State of the Union address.

That, Santorum said, left too much time for Democrats and other opponents of the vague Social Security plan to scare seniors with dire scenarios.

“I was very clear shortly after the election about the need to get started [on rolling out a plan] sooner rather than later,” said Santorum. “I’m not suggesting that the president himself didn’t put a lot of effort into it, … but I don’t think strategically [White House aides] served the president well.”

Santorum noted that he’s not alone in thinking the White House made a few strategic missteps in their Social Security campaign, pointing to those news stories in January that quoted Congressional Republicans as being concerned about the White House’s approach to Social Security.

Meanwhile, Santorum acknowledged that the chances for Congressional action this year have significantly diminished, despite his own attempt to reinvigorate the debate with a bill that would guarantee that promised benefits for people over 55 would not change if personal investment accounts were available under Social Security.

“It’s unlikely [the Senate] will move something this year, unless the House puts something on their agenda,” said Santorum.

But House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said House leaders are still mulling whether to bring up a Social Security overhaul bill, and that the Senate’s unwillingness or inability to act similarly will be the chief factor in that decision.

“If the Senate’s not going to act, does it help to go ahead and step forward alone and put that idea out there? Or are we better off to continue to work with the Senate and come up with a strategy where we could both move forward at the same time?” Blunt said in a meeting with Roll Call editors and reporters Monday. “I don’t have a final answer to that yet, and I don’t think the other leaders do either.”

Blunt added, “It might not advance Social Security reform to have a debate like that right now that wouldn’t result in any kind of action.”