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Semantics shape Social Security debate

The battle over the vocabulary of restructuring Social Security — is the system in "crisis" or "challenged?" Is a possible fix "private" accounts or "personal" accounts? — is the latest example of the lengths to which politicians go to test and refine wording in the sound bite era.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

President Bush is trying to keep the word "private" from going public.

As the two parties brace for the coming debate over restructuring Social Security, polls and focus groups for both sides have shown that voters — especially older ones, who vote in disproportionately heavy numbers — distrust any change that has the word "private" attached to it.

The White House has a logical idea: Don't use the word. This is difficult because, after all, they would be "private" accounts, and Bush's plan would "partially privatize" Social Security.

So Bush and his supporters have started using "personal accounts" instead of "private accounts" to refer to his plan to let younger workers invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds. Republican officials have begun calling journalists to complain about references to "private accounts," even though Bush called them that three times in a speech last fall.

What's in a word?
"Semantics are very important," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) said last week when a reporter asked about "private" accounts. "They're personal accounts, not private accounts. No one is advocating privatizing Social Security."

"Don't dismiss the use of a word," Thomas added. "The use of a word is critical in making law."

Democrats have their own linguistic problem: They want to banish the term "crisis." Democratic Party leaders are urging members to discuss future Social Security shortfalls as a "challenge" rather than a crisis, and assert that Bush is trying to manufacture a crisis to justify making changes that many Democrats say are unnecessary. The White House has fired back with a transcript showing that President Bill Clinton, during a Georgetown University address in 1998, spoke of "the looming fiscal crisis in Social Security."

Republican officials also circulated a quote from the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), chairman of a Bush-appointed commission on Social Security, who in 2000 called privatization "a scare word."

The battle over the vocabulary of restructuring Social Security is the latest example of the lengths to which politicians and their consultants go to test and refine wording in an era when so many voters are influenced by the sound bites in television newscasts. Both sides have commissioned expensive research to guide their word choice as they prepare their cases.

The president's plan would allow younger Americans to divert a third or more of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts to enhance their long-term benefits.

Linguistic marketing
Pollsters on both sides of the Social Security debate said they believe that semantics could be destiny, given the skittishness of lawmakers and voters about changing the popular system, which will turn 70 on Aug.14.

Michael D. Tanner, director of the Social Security project at the libertarian Cato Institute, said "the term 'privatization' always polls about 20 points lower than a description of it." "The problem is that there is no good term," Tanner said. "People have tried 'modernization' and 'personalization.' They all sink like a rock."

Reflecting the new premium being placed on language, Bush turned prickly a week ago Friday during an interview with The Washington Post aboard Air Force One when he was asked if he would talk to Senate Democrats about his "privatization plan."

"You mean the personal savings accounts?" the president scolded. "We don't want to be editorializing, at least in the questions."

Bush generally refers to "personal accounts" but said during a September speech at a Republican fundraiser in Washington that he wanted to offer younger workers "a private account that they can call their own, a private account they can pass on to the next generation, and a private account that government can't take away."

Republican officials began warning their congressional candidates against using any form of the word "private" in 2002, when Democrats seized on it to argue that the addition of individual investment accounts to Social Security would jeopardize the nation's safety net.

Republicans have not always resisted the term. Cato, an early champion of adding individually controlled accounts to Social Security, started a policy incubator called the "Project on Social Security Privatization" in 1995. After complaints from Republican leaders, the name was changed in 2002 to the "Project on Social Security Choice."

Defining the problem
The other area undergoing a semantic makeover is the financial threat to the system. Bush said in his news conference before Christmas that "the crisis is here," and asserted in a recent radio address that the system is "on the road to bankruptcy." Although it will be at least a decade before the Social Security system begins to pay out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes, Vice President Cheney recently asserted that the system "is on a course to eventual bankruptcy," while White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten said the situation "is a crisis."

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, said such terminology is important, because "to develop support for major social change, the status quo has to be scarier than the change."

McInturff said the power of language in shaping public opinion on the question can be seen in polls he conducted last year. A majority of respondents said they wanted to keep the system basically the same when asked about allowing "people to invest some of their Social Security taxes in private accounts." But a majority favored change when he added the phrase "like IRAs or 401(k)s."

"It's important that the change be connected back to something familiar," he said.

Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, said any form of the word "private" suggests "a radical change to Social Security."

"People have seen lots of risks and rip-offs occur, and the virtue of Social Security is that it has been a . . . very reliable system for a very long time," Garin said.

So, according to Garin, Democrats will "do everything they can to force Republicans to live with the language of privatization."

"The debate will be a test of wills over what we call this thing," he said.