U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at a round table conversation on Social Security reform in Galveston
Jason Reed  /  Reuters
President Bush promotes his Social Security reforms at a round table conversation at the University of Texas in Galveston on Tuesday.
updated 4/26/2005 8:00:19 PM ET 2005-04-27T00:00:19

President Bush on Tuesday gave embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay a high-profile, in-person show of support, warmly thanking the Texas Republican, who is facing allegations of ethical improprieties, for his leadership in Congress.

Bush traveled here to pitch his proposal to add private investment accounts to Social Security. DeLay didn’t participate in the public discussion and sat several rows back in the audience.

But the presence of the man seen by the White House as crucial to pushing Bush’s plans through Congress was no accident.

DeLay was included in the event held near his congressional district — and offered a ride back to Washington on Air Force One along with a few other Texas Republicans — to show that “the president appreciates his leadership in the House,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Show of appreciation
Bush said just that in his remarks. “I appreciate the leadership of Congressman Tom DeLay in working on important issues that matter to the country,” he said.

The president also took care to note that he had talked privately backstage with DeLay, “who kindly joined us today.”

Protesters showed their disdain for Bush’s Social Security agenda, but one lone sign targeted DeLay: “Save America without DeLay.”

DeLay is facing questions about the source of funding for some of his foreign trips, political fund-raising for Texas elections and his ties to a lobbyist under federal criminal investigation. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

Democrats denounce DeLay's 'free ride'
The Democratic Party said Bush should be denouncing DeLay, not rewarding him.

“Its time for George Bush to stop giving Tom DeLay a free ride,” said spokeswoman Karen Finney, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman.

The attitude was much different inside the hall, where a mini pep rally broke out before Bush arrived. As a clutch of photographers scurried to focus their lenses on the majority leader, one woman shouted, “We love you, Tom!” That prompted DeLay to stand up and wave, which earned him a loud standing ovation and a second shout of support. “Keep up the good work,” another woman yelled.

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Far from trying to distance Bush from DeLay’s troubles, the White House has repeatedly responded to criticism from Democrats with steadfast support for the majority leader. Asked Tuesday by reporters how strongly Bush was backing DeLay, McClellan said, “Strongly as he ever has, which is strongly.”

Practical move
Part of the reason is pragmatic. One of the most influential and productive conservatives on Capitol Hill, the man known as the “Hammer” is regarded by the White House as someone who gets things done — and the administration has proposals, such as changes to Social Security, that need an effective shepherd.

Bush counselor Dan Bartlett pointed to DeLay’s role in House passage of a Bush-backed energy bill.

“I think actions speak louder than words,” Bartlett said in an interview. “The House leadership, and specifically Tom DeLay, have not changed. He is a very effective leader.”

Bush’s stop here came near the end of a 60-day nationwide blitz aimed at building support for his private-accounts proposal and on the same day that the Senate Finance Committee back in Washington was holding a hearing on Social Security.

But a Washington Post-ABC News poll out Tuesday showed that despite all of Bush’s efforts, nearly two-thirds now disapprove of his performance on Social Security and public support has declined for his plan to allow younger workers to put a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into the stock market.

Friendly territory
Bush chose Galveston because of county employees’ decision 25 years ago to opt out of Social Security in favor of private retirement accounts. Two neighboring counties later adopted the same approach.

About 5 million Americans in government jobs across the country rely on retirement plans other than Social Security.

Going to such places allows Bush to illustrate and sell his own proposal as one that encourages more individual control and offers the prospect of better returns. What he doesn’t say is that those better returns are not guaranteed — a person could lose money and end up with less than Social Security could provide.

“What’s important here is the philosophy behind what Galveston County is doing,” Bush said. “You can own your own asset and watch it grow .... but also you get a better rate of return and you trust people.”

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