Liberals Wary of Clinton's Resolve on Social Security
By: Richard W. Stevenson
The New York Times, March 10, 1999
Gearing up for a major battle to preserve Social Security's guaranteed
benefits, organized labor's ostensible targets are the Republicans in
Congress who support reshaping the retirement system to include private
accounts. But the unions, joined by an array of women's groups, civil
rights organizations and other liberal advocacy groups, are just as
worried about being sold out by the Clinton Administration in the name of
So even though the Administration has so far lined up against making
private accounts part of Social Security, the politically powerful
constituency groups on the Democratic Party's left wing are sending a
not-so-subtle message to the White House and Vice President Al Gore: We
saved your bacon by getting out the vote for you in the 1998 midterm
Congressional elections, and if you cross us now on Social Security, it
will cost you in 2000.
"Not only do we not want Bill Clinton's legacy to be a bad deal on
Social Security, but excessive eagerness to create that legacy could hurt
Al Gore in the elections in terms of people's willingness to work for and
support him," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Institute for
America's Future, a liberal advocacy group that helped create a coalition
fighting Social Security privatization.
"There is the potential for a wrong turn by the
Administration," Mr. Hickey said. "There is the potential for a
compromise that would undercut the Social Security system."
Administration officials acknowledged that they were in a balancing
act, trying not to alienate their core supporters within the party but
leaving open the door to a bipartisan compromise.
Any deal this year, Democratic strategists suggested, would almost
certainly require Republicans to give up on establishing private accounts
within Social Security, perhaps in return for the President agreeing to
substantial tax cuts. The burgeoning Federal budget surplus, they said,
could provide room to give both sides enough of what they want to make a
Certainly, unions and other liberal groups have little concrete to
complain about so far. The proposal Mr. Clinton made on Social Security in
his State of the Union address in January matched almost precisely what
labor had been advocating. Mr. Clinton proposed to keep the guaranteed
retirement benefit intact, to address the retirement system's looming
financial problems largely through use of projected budget surpluses, and
to give low- and moderate-income workers incentives to save and invest
through a new class of accounts independent of Social Security.
The private accounts advocated by Republicans would come out of the
payroll tax workers and employers pay to finance Social Security and would
in most cases involve a reduction in the guaranteed retirement benefit
provided by the system. The accounts proposed by Mr. Clinton would not
touch the payroll tax or alter Social Security benefits. Instead, they
would give workers an incentive to save through tax credits and possibly
Liberals and unions in particular remain unconcerned that even Mr.
Clinton's approach to assuring Social Security's long-term solvency might
ultimately require steps that they vehemently oppose, including raising
the retirement age and reducing cost-of-living adjustments.
But the major problem, as many liberals see it, is Mr. Clinton's
flexible principles on social issues. The President's wanderings across
the ideological spectrum on welfare, health care and the budget have left
them worried that he will sell them out if it is to his political
The suspicion burst into the open last week in Congress, when
Representative Robert T. Matsui of California, who is the Democratic
Party's point man on the issue in the House, worried aloud at a hearing
that the Administration could reverse course on Social Security.
Speaking to Lawrence H. Summers, the Deputy Treasury Secretary, Mr.
Matsui said his support for the Administration's efforts on the issue had
to be tempered "lest you pull the rug out from under me."
But the success of liberal groups in helping turn last fall's
Congressional elections into a victory for Democrats - and Mr. Gore's need
for their all-out support next year - has given unions, black groups,
women's organizations and other left-leaning constituencies what they
regard as new leverage with the White House.
"When the President announced his plan on Social Security, we were
very pleased," said Gerald McEntee, the president of the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Mr. Clinton's decision to begin negotiating over Social Security from
the left was partly "a reaction to the political dynamics of the
midterm election," Mr. McEntee said.
"Now the question is where we go from here, how much negotiation
takes place," he said. Union members are already paying close
attention. A member of Mr. McEntee's Indianapolis local, Shane Brinkman,
spent several days last week at a union seminar near here on what the
debate over Social Security means for labor. Afterward, Mr. Brinkman was
eager to get back home to make the case against overhauling the retirement
system to include individual investment accounts.
"We live in this information age with E-mail and alphanumeric
pagers and cell phones, but there's nothing better than having someone in
your union, in your shop, give you the facts," Mr. Brinkman said.
"It's old-time grass-roots politics."
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