A Passing Exploration of Privatization
By John Mintz, The Washington Post,
10 August 2000
Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman once
favored exploring the idea of partially privatizing Social Security, a
key proposal of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush. But in
the last year Lieberman came to agree with Vice President Gore that
the GOP plan poses a financial risk to retirees.
In the last two days Republicans have publicized every policy
disagreement they can find between presidential candidate Gore and
Lieberman, a Democratic senator from Connecticut. They tick off issues
such as Lieberman's strong support for a missile defense system,
willingness to experiment with school vouchers, criticism of
affirmative action and more restrictive view of the kind of parental
notification necessary for minors to receive abortions.
On some of the issues cited by the GOP, the differences between
Lieberman and Gore appear to be relatively insignificant. A review of
Lieberman's record suggests that their biggest disagreement is over
Lieberman's support of legislation to limit lawsuits and initiatives
to help pay for parents to send their children to private schools.
But perhaps the most threatening issue for Gore's candidacy is Social
Security. Gore makes the case that the Texas governor's proposal to
allow workers to set aside a portion of their Social Security payroll
taxes in private investment accounts is a "risky scheme" that
could threaten the government retirement program and endanger
In recent days, the Republican National Committee has pointed mainly
to a single Lieberman interview from 1998, when he told the Copley
News Service that he generally supports the proposition of allowing
workers to invest a portion of Social Security savings in stocks.
"We're going to see again a kind of old Democratic Party/new
Democratic Party kind of split on this," Lieberman said
then. "I think in the end that individual control of part of the
retirement/Social Security funds has to happen." Republicans also
point out that a centrist political organization Lieberman chairs, the
Democratic Leadership Council, also has favored the idea.
"Al Gore has viciously attacked George Bush" for his views
favoring Social Security privatization and tort reform, but "he
invites somebody to join his campaign who has agreed to some degree
with the governor," said Dan Bartlett, a Bush campaign
spokesman. "It brings into question the credibility of Gore's
"Al Gore and Senator Lieberman appear to have some basic
disagreements on key issues of our time and in this campaign,"
added Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson. "I
hope we don't see Senator Lieberman compromising strongly held
But Lieberman says his interest in privatizing Social Security was a
passing dalliance. In a newspaper column that Lieberman wrote in June,
he said that while he found the concept compelling as a way to bring
retirees a higher savings rate, he ultimately turned against it.
"As the public debate about privatizing Social Security has
intensified, I have been thinking about my personal journey down the
path of privatization," Lieberman wrote in the column, which he
said he unsuccessfully tried to place in several newspapers. "I
began with fascination, which led to exploration, then apprehension
and ultimately rejection. . . . The more I weighed these facts, the
more reluctant I became to tamper with the program's basic
Lieberman wrote the column after Gore policy adviser Elaine Kamarck
asked him and about 20 other Democratic leaders to make statements
criticizing Bush's Social Security proposal.
Bartlett said he found it "curious that his position has evolved
so much" recently.
Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the
conservative Cato Institute, said he believes Lieberman's
transformation is "a traditional case of a vice presidential
nominee transforming his views to conform to those of the person who
picked him. . . . I suspect if he hadn't been chosen, Senator
Lieberman's private journey would have remained private."
But Lieberman disputes that. "The Bush campaign has taken some
comments a couple of years ago and made them into holy writ,"
Lieberman said on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Tuesday. "It
is not true. I was intrigued by the idea of privatization of part of
Lieberman said Social Security--which as a pay-as-you-go system
finances elderly people's retirement with current workers'
payments--would lose more than $1 trillion in "transition
costs" under Bush's plan to allow working Americans to place up to
2 percent of their savings into private equities.
"Look at what Governor Bush is proposing," Lieberman told an
AFL-CIO gathering earlier this week. "Instead of saving Social
Security, he's on a course to savage it with a privatization scheme
that would take $1 trillion out of the nest egg that belongs to every
worker in America, and jeopardize the program stability and the
security of the working future of the American people."
Ron Klain, a senior adviser to the Gore campaign, said that Lieberman
"studied the issue . . . but by the end of 1999 he came to the
conclusion he was against private accounts. . . . These two candidates
have the same position on this issue. They oppose Governor Bush's
plan." That's not to say, Klain added, that Gore and Lieberman
agree on everything--far from it.
"I am not afraid to have somebody as my vice president who
sometimes disagrees with me," Gore said on NBC's "Today"
show yesterday. "The policy will be the policy I decide."