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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 68/No. 33September 14, 2004

Republicans prepare attack
on Social Security
lead article

NEW YORK—As the Republican Party national convention opened at Madison Square Garden here August 30, President George Bush put forward proposals that prepare the way for deeper attacks on Social Security.

Arguing that funds for Social Security will be running out in coming years because of the growing numbers of older workers, Bush promoted the alternative of individual retirement accounts that would supposedly allow working people to build up their savings.

This proposal builds on the groundwork laid by the Clinton administration, which eliminated Aid for Families with Dependent Children through its 1996 welfare “reform” law as the opening wedge of the bipartisan assault on Social Security.

Supporters of Socialist Workers 2004 ticket campaign at protests around republican convention
Militant/Jenny Johnson-Blanchard
Socialist Workers Party campaigners march in August 29 action in New York, offering a working-class alternative to parties of American capitalism. Socialists campaigned for SWP ticket of Róger Calero for president and Arrin Hawkins for vice president. Hawkins is holding banner, at right. (See article)

Speaking to audiences around the country in the days leading up to his acceptance speech in New York on September 2, Bush also proposed a health insurance plan based on individual coverage rather than employer-provided plans, which he said workers would be able to keep even if they change jobs.

In addition, the president called for making previous tax cuts permanent.

These measures are being presented as part of promoting what Bush called “the ownership society,” as a source of stability in face of “changing times.”

The first days of the convention featured former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both Republican politicians, who seek to project the image of tough, down-to-earth, straight-talkers, demagogically presented the Bush team as “winners” who offer “options” to those willing to work hard, in contrast to what they portrayed as Democratic naysayers.

As expected, the Republican convention highlighted the campaign theme of the Bush administration’s role in leading the global “war on terrorism,” taking advantage of the gains that the U.S. imperialist rulers have made abroad, especially in their invasion and occupation of Iraq. The keynote speakers appealed to voters to rally as “Americans” behind the incumbent commander-in-chief.

As the Militant goes to press, however, media reports indicated that the most important theme Bush would present on the final day of the convention was a second-term domestic agenda. Editorials appeared in numerous dailies September 1, through which the ruling class prepared the ground for what its commander-in-chief would present in New York the next day.  
Promoting an ‘ownership society’
At campaign stops ranging from a rally in the steel town of Wheeling, West Virginia, to a farm show near Des Moines, Iowa, Bush offered proposals that he said would, in face of economic uncertainty, allow U.S. residents to save and invest more, giving them greater control over the money they put into retirement, health-care, and savings plans.

“We live in a time of change, and change can be very unsettling,” the president said August 30 at a rally in Wheeling before an audience of 10,000 steelworkers and other residents. “Not all that long ago, moms stayed at home,” Bush said. “Not all that long ago, a person would work for one company and retire with that company, and that company provided the health care and retirement. That’s changing,” he said.

The answer to today’s conditions, he said, is to promote an “ownership society.”

“Boomers like me” are guaranteed a secure retirement, Bush stated (“baby boomers” refers to the generations born between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, when the birthrate skyrocketed during the post-war boom). But “the fiscal solvency of Social Security is in doubt for the young workers coming up,” he said.

As a solution to this alleged problem, Bush proposed that individuals be able to own a “personal retirement account.” Under this scheme, some taxes paid into Social Security would be funneled into individual accounts. Bush presented this as a way for people to put money in their own pockets and to be free to invest it any way they want.

Secondly, the president promoted individual “health savings accounts” that allow families to accumulate money tax-free for future medical expenses. He sold this as a way for workers to keep their health insurance even if they change jobs or are out of work.

In addition, said Bush in an August 28 speech, since many people work for small businesses that cannot afford to provide health insurance for employees, the solution is to “let small businesses pool together and purchase insurance at the same discount that big businesses are able to do.” He said such a measure, along with limiting “frivolous lawsuits” against hospitals and doctors, would ensure that “health decisions are made by doctors and patients, not by Washington, D.C., bureaucrats” and trial lawyers, who Republicans personify as Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards.

Thirdly, Bush has called for making permanent two tax cuts that are due to expire in coming years. In 2001 and 2003 Congress approved tax cuts totaling about $2 trillion over a 10-year period.

He counterposed this plan to promises by Democrats to finance new spending by taxing the rich. “You’ve heard that before, haven’t you?” Bush said. “You know how it works: the rich dodge, and you pay.”

Bush was also expected to call for making the federal tax code “fairer and simpler.”

Some Republican politicians have proposed going further by establishing a national sales tax or even a flat tax to replace the federal income tax along with the Internal Revenue Service. This idea has been promoted in a new book by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Speaker: Forty Years in Coaching and Politics.

While a national sales tax would fall heaviest on working people, who spend a larger share of their income on basic consumer goods than the rich, its advocates argue that it would close all loopholes the wealthy use to avoid paying income taxes and would encourage saving and investment to give families more control over their financial fate.These proposals play on the growing insecurity among working people and the middle classes about the future.

An article in the August 30 online edition of the Economist magazine noted that poorer sections of the working class now spend more than 35 percent of their budget on housing and just 16 percent on food, and that “child care, done for free by the mothers and grandmothers of the 1950s and 1960s, is now a big expense.” Some 35.9 million people, or 12.5 percent of the population, fell below the official poverty line in 2003—1.3 million more than the year before. And over the same period, 1.3 million fewer people were covered by employer-sponsored health plans.  
Appeal to ‘winners’
In the days leading up to Bush’s appearance, the Republican convention was marked by speeches by Republican leaders Giuliani and Schwarzenegger, who sought to project the image that Bush and the Republicans represent the “real America”—those who through ambition and hard work become “successful.”

In his keynote speech Giuliani, billed as a resolute leader and “hero” during the post-9/11 days in New York, portrayed the “real New Yorkers” as tough cops, firefighters, and construction workers who “have arms that are bigger than my legs, and…opinions that are bigger than their arms.”

Bush, he said, has acted by “combating terrorism at the source, beyond our shores, so we don’t have to confront it” at home. He lauded what he described as the successes in the Bush administration’s foreign policy—from the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the capitulation by the Libyan government to U.S. imperialism’s demand that it dismantle all its chemical and nuclear weapons facilities.

“In choosing a president we really don’t choose just a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal,” Giuliani said, striking an America-first tone. “We choose a leader.” He painted Kerry as a weak-kneed waffler who does not meet such criteria.

Reinforcing these themes, Schwarzenegger demagogically proclaimed that he embodied the “American dream” of an immigrant who arrived with empty pockets and became a success story. He addressed “my fellow immigrants,” saying those who are ambitious can do likewise.

Schwarzenegger, whose verbal support for abortion rights, civil unions for gays, and gun control differs from the stance of the Republican “social right,” appealed to undecided voters to support Bush in the elections. “Maybe you don’t agree with this party on every single issue,” he said. “I say to you tonight I believe that’s not only okay, that’s what’s great about this country.”

He portrayed Democratic critics of the administration as pessimists and “economic girlie men,” repeating a phrase he has used to get in the face of liberal opponents.

In contrast, Schwarzenegger said, under the Bush administration “America is back”—a reference to his famous line in the “Terminator” movie.

Giuliani and Schwarzenegger used demagogy in these speeches to appeal to professionals, small and medium businesspeople, and better-off workers to side with the “winners” in American society. This tone contrasted with that of liberal Democratic politicians who claim concern for the “underprivileged.” Earlier fake appeals by the Republican Party to Black and Latino voters were virtually absent the first three days of the convention.

Given the relatively high abstention rate among working people that weights U.S. elections toward the middle classes, and the fact that millions of immigrants don’t have the right to vote, this appeal by the Republicans may pay off at the voting booth.

These themes were much more representative of the Republican convention than the conservative party platform adopted on the first day of the gala. The platform endorsed constitutional bans on gay marriage and abortion. As expected, the nonbinding document, a cost-free nod to the conservative wing of the party, was a nonissue in the convention.

First Lady Laura Bush in her August 31 speech praised the president for providing federal funding for stem cell research, a position that is anathema to the anti-abortion Republican right. And the previous week Vice President Richard Cheney commented extensively on the fact that his daughter Mary Cheney is a lesbian, saying he had “enormous pride” in both of his daughters.

Meanwhile, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Edwards attacked Bush for his comment that the U.S. government had been surprised by the rapid collapse of the army of the Baathist regime in Iraq in face of the Anglo-American invasion, and by the insurgency that followed.

“It was catastrophic to launch a war without a plan to win the peace,” Edwards said, reiterating the principal theme of the Democratic presidential campaign—that a Kerry White House would be more effective in waging war and fighting “terrorism” than the current administration.

Because the White House has a solid four-year record of carrying out this course on behalf of the U.S. rulers, however, the argument by Kerry and Edwards has not given them much advantage in the election campaign.

In fact, Kerry has now slipped behind Bush in opinion polls. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, Bush was ahead of Kerry 48 percent to 47 percent among all registered voters surveyed. A similar poll taken after the Democratic convention showed Kerry leading by 5 percent.
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