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Gore slams Bush on Social Security

Speaking to the AARP, Vice President Al Gore says George W. Bush's plan would "end Social Security as we know it."

Acting like a presidential candidate who thinks he has discovered a winning issue, Vice President Al Gore stepped up his attack Wednesday on George W. Bush's plan for privatizing part of Social Security and challenged the Texas governor to debate the issue soon.

The Bush plan, outlined in broad terms on Monday, is radical, irresponsible and vague, Gore said.

"Can we really settle on so many unanswered questions on an issue as important as Social Security?"

Bush "deserves a chance to fill the blanks," he said.

Dismissing the debate notion, Bush accused Gore of trying to scare the elderly.

"Americans are going to have a clear choice," Bush said in a news release. "They can have the same old tired rhetoric. . . . Or we can have a president who's willing to work with Democrats and Republicans alike to make sure that the Social Security system not only fulfills the promise for the elderly today, but is around for younger workers."

At issue is the long-term future of Social Security, which provides retirement and disability income to 44-million Americans. When baby boomers start retiring in 10 or 15 years, the system will spend more money than it takes in, eating away at a current surplus. Unless something changes, projections show, the surplus will disappear by 2034 and retirees will collect only partial benefits.

Bush proposes that younger workers be allowed to set up private retirement investment accounts, funded with part of the payroll taxes they and their employers now pay into Social Security. Stock market returns from those investments would replace some of their benefits when those workers retire.

The plan has obvious appeal to younger workers, who are growing up in a booming economy with years of stock market gains. The gamble for Bush is how older voters in key states like Florida will react to tinkering with a 65-year-old program that lifted many of them out of poverty.

Bush vowed that his plan will not affect benefits to current retirees or workers close to retirement.

But Gore quickly carried his counterattack to that very constituency: the national convention of the AARP, ending today at the cavernous Orange County Convention Center.

Roughly 8,000 older people sat on folding chairs and watched Gore's speech on four large video screens, applauding enthusiastically, just as they had for Barry Manilow and Bill Cosby on previous nights.

Gore started with a folksy approach, introducing his 87-year-old mother and asking people to raise their hands according to how long they've been married, how many grandchildren they have and what wars they fought in.

Then, with barely a mention of Medicare, prescription drugs or other important issues, it was all Social Security.

Gore spent a few minutes talking about his own plan, which calls for paying off the national debt with today's Social Security surplus, then funding future retirement benefits with the interest payments that would be saved.

The Bush plan, however, would "end Social Security as we know it," Gore said. "And that's not a world I want to grow old in."

Even if younger workers invested just 2 percentage points of the 12.5 percent payroll tax, the Bush plan would drain $1-trillion from the Social Security trust fund over 10 years, Gore said. How would that money be replaced without raising taxes or cutting benefits?

What happens if the stock market falls? What happens if individual investors make terrible choices? Will the rest of us have to bail them out?

"You shouldn't be asked to play stock market roulette with your retirement savings," Gore said. "And you should not have to foot the bill for others who do play and lose."

The Bush plan "would take the security out of Social Security," Gore said.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer scoffed at Gore's $1-trillion figure, noting that the private savings accounts would be voluntary and not everyone would use them.

"Just as Al Gore invented the Internet, he will invent numbers," Fleischer said.

Bush has acknowledged that his plan leaves many details to be worked out. He said he will appoint a bipartisan commission to work on them after the election.