WASHINGTON – When President Bush unveiled the first details of his personal investment accounts proposal, a loud chorus of nay-saying Democrats said it was dead on arrival.
Bush has his work cut out for him if he's to unite Republican lawmakers behind his plan. No one has ever opened up the sacrosanct Social Security system to private investment in stocks and bonds before, and many Republicans are understandably skittish about whether it will work – and what it could do to them politically if it doesn't.
In what is shaping up to be the biggest legislative battle of the year, the Democrats and their most powerful political allies are preparing a major campaign offensive to kill Bush's plan and to defeat any GOP lawmaker who votes for it. If you thought 2004 was divisive and bitter, this year's legislative donnybrook over Social Security could make that look like a Sunday-afternoon picnic.
The nightly news reports go to great lengths to offer plenty of reasons why the president's high-risk gamble could fail, but offer few if any reasons why the Democrats' unbending opposition to any reform of the system may carry even greater risks for their long-term political viability. Consider these overlooked factors:
Bush's plan is popular with a significant number of Democrats. A Zogby poll last month of more than 1,000 likely voters found that 30 percent of Democrats said they liked the idea.
Democratic Party leaders "are not talking to their own base, let alone to the rest of middle America," John Zogby told me.
More to the point, by flatly opposing any and all personal investment plans, Democrats risk alienating some of their party's most loyal political constituencies, particularly among minorities.
An Annenberg poll in December found that 54 percent of Hispanics supported the concept of "allowing workers to invest Social Security funds in the stock market."
Zogby's latest poll for the Cato Institute similarly showed that Bush's plan is popular among a large number of minorities, including Latinos, blacks and Asians, who tend to vote heavily Democratic. Fifty-one percent of black voters, for example, who support the investment idea said they would be willing to invest as much as half of their payroll tax in individual accounts.
These polls confirm what previous polls have shown over many years, that the appeal of retirement investment accounts cuts across all political lines.
"The personal accounts have enormous appeal, whether Republican or Democrat," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "That's going to create some challenges for the Democrats, who are standing foursquare in opposition to the president's proposal."