Advancing a Free Society

Correcting the Historical Record on President Bush’s Social Security Reform Efforts

Thursday, May 26, 2011

In this morning’s Washington Post, political analyst Dan Balz interprets the Democrats’ victory in the 26th New York Congressional District as being a direct result of Republican overreach on Medicare reform. Specifically, he writes that Republicans are making “the same miscalculation that other politicians in both parties have made, which is to assume a mandate when one doesn’t exist.”

As his prime example of “other politicians” making the same mistake, Mr. Balz offers President Bush’s Social Security reform efforts of 2005:

“Former president George W. Bush made a similar mistake after the 2004 election when he launched his proposal to partially privatize Social Security. He sprang the plan on Congress and the country in early 2005 without having fully aired his intentions during his reelection campaign.”

Whether Mr. Balz is correct in his current political analysis is not a matter on which I have any especial expertise to offer. I did, however, serve President Bush during the 2005 Social Security reform effort and thus feel compelled to note that the description above is incorrect on at least two counts.

The substantive correction first: President Bush did not propose to “partially privatize” Social Security. He did propose a savings component within the Social Security program, but he explicitly specified that both this savings component and the traditional portion of Social Security would remain publicly administered by a federal agency. Given the frequency with which political opponents charged President Bush with wanting to “privatize” Social Security, it’s not wholly surprising that Mr. Balz would make this mistake, but it is nevertheless an incorrect description of what President Bush actually proposed.

The Washington Post itself acknowledged this in its own editorial published during the following year:

“The Social Security reform that President Bush pushed last year involved personal retirement accounts. But it did not involve "privatization": The accounts, which were to be optional, were to be designed and administered by the government, with no opportunities for Wall Street salesmen to foist enormous hidden fees on unsuspecting workers.”

Far more surprising, however, and more central to the point of his column, is Mr. Balz’s mistaken description of the political history: that President Bush “sprang” Social Security reform on the public in 2005 “without having fully aired his intentions during his election campaign.”

This is very wrong. Not only did President Bush air his intentions, these airings were central to his campaign and discussed at virtually every stop. Examples include this speech, this one, this one, this one, and this one, among countless others. The language is virtually identical in each instance, because it was a standard part of his campaign speech.

Even before the 2004 campaign, President Bush had convened a bipartisan Social Security reform commission, part of whose charge was to develop recommendations for designing and administering personal accounts. That commission, co-chaired by former Senator Daniel P. Moynihan and Richard Parsons, delivered its recommendations long before the 2004 elections.

Mr. Balz is certainly not alone in believing that President Bush paid a political price for Congress’s failure to enact the Social Security reforms that he advocated. But it is extremely far afield from the historical record to assert that President Bush had not emphasized Social Security reform during his campaign. President Bush had actually taken virtually every available opportunity to make the voting public fully aware of where he stood.

(photo credit: DonkeyHotey)