Red states feeling blue over attack on Social Security

When President Bush took his scheme to privatize Social Security on the road last week he came face to face with “red state” reality.

“The president is trying to destroy the social safety net of our society and the people will not allow that to happen,” said Mark Froemke, a Minnesota AFL-CIO vice president, as he marched in Fargo, N.D., with hundreds of workers, active and retired, clergy and students Feb. 3. The demonstration was aimed at Bush, who was in Fargo for a town hall meeting to sell his privatization plan.

“The weather gods must support Social Security and smiled on us,” chuckled Froemke, who lives an hour or two north in Grand Forks. “It was a positive 41 degrees, sun shining, instead of the 43 below zero and windy that it was a week ago.”

But the union leader cautioned that the fight to stop Bush is for “all the marbles.”

“This administration is out to take it all: pensions, health care and decent wages,” Froemke said. “Not one inch on Social Security! That’s the AFL-CIO slogan and it says it all. This is life-and-death.”

From Fargo, Bush flew to the state capital, Bismarck. There, 60 union leaders from around the state, in town for their legislative conference, protested the president’s scheme on the Capitol steps.

Although 66 percent of North Dakotans voted for Bush, a recent poll by the AARP indicates that support for privatization is shaky at best. One in four North Dakotans receives a check from Social Security each month.

“Most North Dakotans aren’t buying into the idea of private Social Security accounts, even with a special visit by the president,” said Janis Cheney, North Dakota AARP spokeswoman.

“When presented with the potential consequences of creating private accounts, up to 75 percent of North Dakotans have serious concerns about the cuts to Social Security benefits that could result and about the new federal debt caused by diverting money from Social Security to create private accounts,” she said.

“It’s important to realize Social Security is not in immediate danger of going broke and can pay full benefits through 2042. Once privatization is off the table, AARP is committed to finding ways to be certain Social Security is solvent for future generations.”

Billings, Mont., was the next stop for the presi-dent’s road show. The state’s senior senator, Democrat Max Baucus, is up for re-election in 2006. Baucus, who voted with Bush on the 2001 tax cut and the sweeping overhaul of Medicare, held his own town meeting to condemn the president’s plan this time.

“All this talk you hear about private accounts,” Baucus told a standing-room-only crowd, “it really has nothing to do with the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund. In fact, it makes the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund much worse — much, much worse.”

MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, aired television commercials throughout the state during Bush’s visit, warning that privatization would reduce Social Security benefits and force people into “working retirement.”

When Bush got off the plane Feb. 4 in Tampa, Fla., the final stop of his sales tour, trade unionists and consumer groups met him with a mile-long protest march. Florida leaders estimate that $32 billion in Social Security benefits are spent each year in the Sunshine State. About 3.3 million Floridians cash a Social Security check each month.

“The president is creating a crisis that doesn’t exist,” said Phillip Compton of the Florida Consumer Action Network, “just like with the weapons of mass destruction and the invasion of Iraq. It’s the same strategy to sell the privatization of Social Security.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, a Democrat representing Tampa, said the phones have been ringing off the hook in his office. With the hype surrounding the president’s visit, residents are frightened and confused, the congressman said.

Davis criticized Bush for creating a crisis atmosphere, instead of addressing the long-term reforms required to maintain the country’s most successful retirement safety net.

“This is not about salesmanship,” he said. “It is about statesmanship.”

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