Capital Letters: Kerry on Kerry; Americans on Social Security

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Last week John Kerry took a trip to Florida and Georgia as part of a series of "thank you" tours he is taking around the country to visit supporters and also attend fundraisers to help out Democrat candidates for 2006, such as Bill Nelson of Florida, who is running to keep his Senate seat. Riding through Atlanta in a nondescript blue van accompanied by a handful of aides and two writers, Kerry sounded at times like he was thrilled to be done campaigning ("this is the first time in Georgia in four years I'm not asking anybody for money" he joked at one stop) but at others like he was still trying to make his case to be President. He returned to President Bush's dismissal of his plan to cover the 11 million children who currently don't have health insurance as a government boondoggle, insisting repeatedly "it's not a government plan."

Kerry's strategy for his post-campaign career, in which he is looking to rally his base of supporters outside Washington to give him influence inside the Capitol, is reminiscent of two other ex-candidates: Howard Dean and John McCain. McCain leveraged his support from his 2000 race into a movement behind campaign finance reform, eventually forcing President Bush to sign a bill he didn't like. After his disastrous showing in the primaries, Dean campaigned for candidates all around the country and raised money from his supporters, efforts that earned praise from fellow Democrats that helped him win the chairmanship of the party this year. It's difficult to predict how successful Kerry will be: on one hand, in winning 59 million votes, the Massachusetts Senator has a much greater potential base than the other two ex-candidates, on the other, it's not clear he has the intensity of backing of Dean or the breadth of support of McCain, who is admired by Democrats, Republicans and the press.

Here is Kerry in his own words on some of the key subjects of the day:


On the role of faith in politics: "The values reflected in a broad array of religious faiths are being hijacked and it's important for us to take it head on. It's a very difficult thing to do in two or three months of the campaign, but now is the time for that. . . . I know that I was never taught that faith was a one-issue event. I've spent a lot of time rereading things to make sure I'm clear on it all. While we all have powerful beliefs about life and when it begins, the fact that one supports Roe v. Wade doesn't mean you're pro-abortion by any sense of the imagination. If you go back and read the New Testament and the teaching of the Lord, nowhere in those teachings do I find Jesus talking about abortion or gays or intolerance. I find forgiveness and embracement."

On the changing America media: "A whole bunch of folks don't get news from anybody. 80 percent of Americans get 100 percent of their news from television, some of them get their news literally from Jon Stewart or from Jay Leno, David Letterman, Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live or they get it from Fox. News has become entertainment and not necessarily an arbiter for what's true and I learned this first hand in the campaign. 77 percent of people who voted for George Bush believe that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. So that's the challenge."

On what Democrats must do to win: “This is the real challenge. I became the nominee of our party in March and had 5 months to put together a national structure. Karl Rove and the Republicans had 6 years before that, two years running against Al Gore and 4 years [in the White House]. And they spent $150 million a year doing major analyses. They had time to analyze how people live and how their lives affect the choices people make. We haven't and we have to get our party on the same page. I'm convinced we can turn around [the party] and reclaim our leadership."

On the problem with politics today: "The real issues of concern to people have been shunted aside and a bunch of phony choices have been put in front of people. I love the fact that we're exporting democracy, it's a great hallmark of America, but we've got to practice democracy better right here at home."


Parents, Pols, Polls, Personal, Private

Congress is back on the road again, heading out for a two-week recess that will range from traveling to the Middle East for some (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) to touring colleges with their children (Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist). For President Bush, this recess is important because it will be the second time members go out and try to sell Republican plans to revamp Social Security. After some members had difficulty discussing some proposed changes to the entitlement program, Republican leaders sent them home this time with more advice on how to talk about the issue. According to a Republican memo, at town halls members should "focus on the grandkids ... frame the discussion on personal accounts in terms of grandkids, " "avoid any form of the word privatize," and "stress the voluntary nature of the program" because many people don't yet know that the accounts don't have to taken if people don't want them. There is also this interesting tibit: the trust fund IOUs (the money that the rest of government owes the Social Security system), actually exist, in a three-drawer file in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

While this trip to their districts will be important in assessing how members feel about Bush's ideas, it's still difficult to assess exactly how the public views this issue. Some pundits, such as Slate's Jacob Weisberg, have noted the growing consensus in Washington that the plan will die and wonder when Bush will admit it. Polls suggest Bush is in trouble. A TIME survey last week found Bush had 37 percent approval rating on Social Security issues, while 54 percent of respondents disapproved. The numbers were 33 percent approval, 59 percent disapproval in a Newsweek poll conducted at the same time, and the Washington Post placed it at 35 percent to 56 percent.

But then it gets confusing. The Post asked "Would you support or oppose a plan in which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market?" —the essence of Bush's plan. Fifty-six percent approved, only 41 percent were opposed. In a Fox poll, though it asked a very similar question, "Regardless of whether you personally would want to invest your Social Security contribution in personal or private accounts, do you think it is a good idea or a bad idea for the Social Security system to include personal accounts for people under age 55?”, 40 percent said good idea, while 47 percent said bad idea. TIME asked, "President Bush favors changing the Social Security system to allow people to invest part of their Social Security payroll tax in stocks and bonds. Do you favor or oppose this proposed change to Social Security?" which 40 percent favored, while 52 percent were opposed. And the public also isn't exactly sure of the extent of the problem. The Post asked " "If changes are not made, do you think the Social Security system is heading for a crisis down the road, or not?" and 71 percent said yes, while only 23 percent said no. But when asked by TIME "Is there a crisis or is this just a scare tactic?", 48 percent said scare tactic, while 43 percent said crisis.

The most unsurprising part of the polls may be how the public feels about benefits cuts or tax increases, the changes that will actually make the system solvent, regardless of personal accounts. Asked by the Post about increasing the Social Security tax, 31 percent supported, 64 percent opposed. Raising the retirement age from 67 to 68 found 33 percent supported, 66 disapproved. Changing the way benefits are calculated to lower the growth in benefits won 37 percent, while 57 percent disagreed. And 75 percent said reducing guaranteed benefits was not something they supported, while only 20 percent agreed. And Americans don't want to borrow all the money either. In the TIME poll, the support for personal accounts dropped to 24 percent once the borrowing of $2 trillion to pay for the accounts was noted, compared to 67 percent opposition. The only change that gets public support is increasing the maximum income taxed for Social Security from $90,000, which is unlikely to solve the whole problem.

What to make of all this? The public, unwilling to make any sacrifices to ensure Social Security solvency, may be getting the sort of uncourageous leadership it deserves. Neither President Bush nor congressional Democrats will put out a precise plan on how to make the system solvent, fearing the other side will use it in the 2006 elections.