In reality, the proposals for individual retirement and health-care accounts are part of preparing the way for a stepped-up offensive by Democrats and Republicans against Social Security, Medicare, and other social conquests of working people.
The Republican candidates are also campaigning around the gains U.S. imperialism has made in shifting its military strategy to be able to wage wars to defend its interests around the world under the banner of the war on terrorism. They contrast this with the previous decade, the years of the post-Cold War peace dividend, when Washington scaled back military spending and had not yet adjusted to the perspective that were faced with a new enemy and we need a… fundamental redesign of our national security strategy, as Vice President Richard Cheney put it in a September 3 speech.
Bush pulled ahead of Democrat John Kerry in the polls following the Republican convention. A Newsweek post-convention poll put him 11 points ahead of Kerry54 percent to 43 percent. This followed virulent attacks on Kerry at the Republican National Convention. Some speakers, especially Sen. Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat, questioned Kerrys ability to act as commander-in-chief.
Kerry has so far tried to say as little as possible about his proposals on Social Security, promising that, if elected, he would not cut benefits for current Social Security recipients. That is also Bushs position.
Speaking near Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania September 4, the president reiterated a central theme of his convention speech. He said a second-term Bush administration would take steps to foster an ownership society as a guarantee of economic security in face of changing times.
At the heart of these proposals is Social Security reform, which, under the pretext that the growing number of retired workers will bankrupt the Social Security system in the coming decades, is aimed at undermining its character as a social right for all.
Bush spelled out this argument in his September 2 acceptance speech at the Republican convention in New York. With the huge baby boom generation approaching retirement, many of our children and grandchildren understandably worry whether Social Security will be there when they need it, he said. We must strengthen Social Security by allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes in a personal accounta nest egg you can call your own and government can never take away.
The president also claimed credit for having strengthened Medicare. In the guise of offering coverage for prescription drugs, however, the bipartisan Medicare prescription drug law adopted by Congress and signed by Bush last year shifts more of the burden for retirees health care onto retired workers themselves, forcing them to rely more heavily on private health-care companies, and introducing means testing.
On September 3, federal officials announced that Medicare premiums, the monthly expense paid by elderly and disabled patients for routine care, will be hiked by 17 percent. The administrator of Medicare, Dr. Mark McClellan, acknowledged that part of this increase results from the billions of dollars Medicare is paying insurers to encourage them to offer private plans, the New York Times reported September 4.
As part of his package of proposals, Bush is also advocating tax-free health savings accounts to provide medical insurance based on individual coverage rather than employer-sponsored plans. Workers would receive tax credits for putting savings in these accounts. Employer contributions into these individual accounts would be possible if workers signed up for the companys health plan, which would likely require large deductions from their paychecks.
Workers would supposedly be able to keep this individual health plan even if they changed jobs. This is a major selling point, because working people who switch employers often lose their insurance or end up with worse coverage. And even if they stay at the same company, they have no guarantee they will receive a pension or health-care benefits, as in the case of Horizon Natural Resources, United Airlines, and other major companies where workers face the loss of their pensions after the bosses declare bankruptcy.
Noting that more than half of the uninsured are small business employees, the president advocated allowing small companies to join together to purchase insurance at the discounts available to big companies. Nearly 82 million people in the United Statesone out of three under the age of 65lacked health insurance at some point in 2002-2003.
Bush highlighted his call for making permanent the tax cuts instituted over the past few years, as a way to allow people to save money for the future. He coupled this proposal with a pledge to reform the federal tax code in the name of simplifying it and promoting economic growth.
In offering these proposals the president touched on the insecurity faced by millions today. The times in which we live and work are changing dramatically, he said at the Republican convention. The workers of our parents generation typically had one job, one skill, one careeroften with one company that provided health care and a pension. And most of those workers were men. Today, workers change jobs, even careers, many times during their lives, and in one of the most dramatic shifts our society has seen, two-thirds of all moms also work outside the home.
Bush added that the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker trainingwere created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow. We will transform these systems so that all citizens [can] make your own choices and pursue your own dreams. He appealed to the idea of an ownership society where people would be rewarded for their work by becoming owners, as opposed to drifting into a welfare society where ones income and benefits are dependent on bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.
Social Security: painful choices
Capitalist politicians and commentators seized on remarks by Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan to step up the push for Social Security reform. Reiterating comments he made earlier this year, Greenspan said August 27 that the country will face abrupt and painful choices if Congress does not move rapidly to reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits because of the growing numbers of workers who are approaching retirement.
The Fed chief has made two proposals to recalibrate Social Security. One is to raise the retirement age, which now ranges from 65, for those born before 1938, to 67 for those born after 1959. The second change is to cut benefits for future retirees. A third measure, not ruled out by Greenspan, is to increase Social Security payroll taxes or to raise taxes on benefits.
Greenspan suggested beginning this reform by cutting the annual cost-of-living adjustment that Social Security beneficiaries receive. Former Social Security Commissioner Robert Ball has proposed beginning with a raise in payroll taxes on higher-paid employees; if such a measure passes, of course, it may be used to pave the way for taxing the benefits of lower-paid workers next.
Liberal economists Peter Diamond of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Peter Orszag from the Brookings Institute have advocated both increasing taxes and gradually reducing Social Security benefits to compensate for longer life spans.
The Bush administrations proposal, outlined in his Plan for Promoting an Era of Ownership, is voluntary personal retirement accounts for younger workers that could be invested in stocks and bonds. It promises no cuts in benefits for current retirees and near-retirees.
Kerry has been silent on the heart of Bushs proposals, saying only he will not cut benefits for current Social Security recipients, which is also the presidents position. Both Kerry and Bush, however, have avoided taking a position on proposals by Greenspan and others to cut benefits for future retirees, which is what the real debate has focused on.
Working people won the concessions contained in the Social Security Actincluding guaranteed pension, disability, and unemployment benefits, as well as Aid to Families with Dependent Childrenthrough hard-fought battles in the 1930s. Through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s these gains were extended with Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and cost-of-living protectionsthat is, automatic adjustment of benefits to make up for inflation. They have become part of the basic living standards of working people. A frontal assault on these gains would carry a big political cost.
In 1982-83, for example, the Reagan administration established a bipartisan commission, headed by Greenspan, to consider proposals for reforming Social Security. The administration decided that it was politically too risky to touch the program at the time, however. The commissions proposal to raise the age for full retirement benefits from 65 to 67 was not implemented until two decades later.
Subsequent social security reform commissions, like Clintons Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform and the one appointed by Bush in 2001, co-chaired by former Democratic senator Patrick Moynihan, have also been bipartisan.
The opening salvo was launched by the Clinton administration, which in 1996 dismantled an easier target: the federal welfare program known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children. There was virtually no opposition to this move by the unions and civil rights organizations, which supported the Clinton administration. As a result, the U.S. rulers are now training their guns on Social Security and Medicare, with the current debate opening the way for the attacks that the next administration, whether under Bush or Kerry, will carry out.
Imperialisms global war on terror
Another theme that the Republican candidates are campaigning around is the end of the peace dividend and the transformation of the U.S. military and NATO to defend imperialist interests worldwide more effectively under the banner of fighting terrorism.
In a September 6 speech in St. Paul, Minnesota, Cheney went further than Bush administration officials have usually gone in arguing for the U.S. governments military strategy. He blamed not only the Clinton administration of the 1990s but also the Reagan administration of the 1980s for teaching terrorists that they could strike us with relative impunity and that if they hit us hard enough, they could change our policy.
Cheney rattled off a series of attacks on U.S. targets that took place during the two decades before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He cited the 1983 car-bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Beirut in which 241 Marines were killed, the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, among others.
What were the consequences of these attacks? Cheney asked. The answer is, not much. We fired off a few cruise missiles once. Basically, they struck us with impunity and got away with it.
In an earlier speech, given August 6 in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, Cheney elaborated, In Beirut in 1983, after the Marine barracks were struck, within a matter of months we were totally out of Lebanon. In 1993, after they ambushed some of our troops in Mogadishu, we lost 19 soldiers, within a matter of weeks we were out of Somalia altogether. The first incident took place under the Reagan administration, the second during the Clinton presidency.
Now, under the Bush administration, that day is gone. Its over with, Cheney said in St. Paul.
In his acceptance speech Bush highlighted the progress the U.S. rulers have made in the global war on terror since the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In those two countries, he noted, regimes favorable to U.S. interests have been established, and other governments in the region have gotten the message and are more responsive to U.S. demands. Pakistan is capturing terrorist leaders, Saudi Arabia is making raids and arrests, Libya is dismantling its weapons programs, he said.
The president presented these imperialist advances in the Mideast and South Asia as proof that a second Bush term would mean a safer world. Seizing on the unpopular, reactionary policies of forces that Washington has targeted, such as the Taliban, the former ruling party in Afghanistan, he portrayed U.S. foreign policy as favorable to womens rights. Because of the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban-led government, he said, women in Afghanistan are no longer shot in a sports stadium. And young women across the Mideast will hear the message that their day of equality and justice is coming.
Taking a mainstream Republican stance, Bush mentioned the question of abortion only in passing, saying that we must make a place for the unborn child. Similarly, he spoke of his support for the union of a man and a woman and the Defense of Marriage Act passed by the Clinton administration as a bipartisan position, omitting mention of the campaign by conservative Republicans for a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.
Attacks on Kerry
Bush portrayed his Democratic opponent as an unreliable waverer in the war on terror, quoting Kerrys notorious statement that I actually did vote for the $87 billion [for the Iraq war] before I voted against it. Throughout the convention delegates mocked Kerry by chanting flip flop, flip flop.
It was left to other speakers at the convention, however, to launch virulent attacks on Kerry. The day before Bush spoke, both Cheney and Democratic senator Zell Miller from Georgia branded Kerry as soft and having exercised bad judgement repeatedly on questions of national security.
Now, while young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats manic obsession to bring down our commander-in-chief, Miller said. Kerrys stance toward terrorism, he declared, is vacillation that can only encourage our enemies and confuse our friends.
Cheney mocked the Democratic candidate as being soft on terrorism. Kerry, he said, talks about leading a more sensitive war on terror.
For his part, Kerry has continued to argue that he would be a more effective war president than Bush. Since Bush has already been carrying out such a course for four years without running into a major quagmire, the majority of public opinion has tended to back the current commander-in-chief. Kerry has largely been reduced to raising minor tactical disagreements with the administrations foreign policy and dwelling on his days as an officer in the Vietnam War three decades ago.
Since the Republican convention, Kerry has reiterated his campaign theme that the Bush administration is responsible for the loss of jobs in the United States over the past three and a half years. The latest government reports, however, indicated that employers added 144,000 jobs in August and that the official jobless rate dipped slightly to 5.4 percent, its lowest level since the 2001 recession. While working people still face a decline in real wages, several million out of work, and worsening conditions on the job, the Bush administration has been able to take advantage of the current upturn in the business cycle.
Under these conditions, given the lack of an alternative presented by the Democratic campaign, it is not surprising that Kerry, who had been running neck and neck with Bush in the polls, has now slipped behind the incumbent. Some New York Times columnists and other pro-Kerry voices are already analyzing the lessons of past Democratic defeats and adopting a tone that anticipates a Republican victory in November.
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