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Social Security needs secure end

"Maybe, maybe not."

Mark those words. You'll hear them often between now and Election Day. George W. Bush spoke them in response to a question from Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater about Bush's plan for partially privatizing Social Security.

Slater asked if Bush could say whether future beneficiaries under his proposal would receive no less than they would have gotten under the current system. Bush gave no guarantees. If Al Gore has his way, this marked the birth of the "Maybe, Maybe Not Social Security Plan."

Let's begin by thanking Bush for making this a very important election. Where domestic policy is concerned, few things matter more than Social Security. That program is, as Bush rightly said this week, "the single most successful government program in American history." Bush has put Social Security's future at the center of the campaign, and it's as good a time as any to decide what we want to do about it.

Bush is proposing a radical departure. "Radical" is not a criticism, but a fair description of the changes Bush has in mind. By allowing workers to keep a percentage of the payroll taxes they now pay and invest it themselves, Bush would make Social Security less "social" and more individual. It's one reason Bush couldn't give Slater a rock-solid guarantee that everyone would be as well-off under his plan as they are now. Risk produces both rewards and losses.

Because what Bush has done is so important, it's impossible to believe voters _ or Gore or reporters _ will allow him to rhapsodize on the wonders of privatization without answering a lot of questions. For example, how will he pay the transition costs to his new system? They'll be large because allowing people to keep a share of their payroll taxes takes money out of the government coffers from which Social Security benefits are paid. Yet Bush promises those at or near retirement that they won't lose a dime of benefits. How will he pay them?

Will currently guaranteed future benefits have to be cut? What happens when people make perfectly reasonable investments that go wrong around the time of their retirement?

One more question: Was John McCain right when he said during the Republican primaries that the country couldn't afford both the big tax cut Bush has proposed and a big fix in Social Security that includes privatization? McCain proposed much smaller tax reductions to put aside enough money to pay the costs of privatization. What does Bush know that McCain doesn't?

The tricky thing for Bush is that every guarantee he offers will require him to produce details to back up the guarantee. Take raising the retirement age. Many privatizers candidly acknowledge that will be necessary to cut the system's costs. But if Bush opposes further retirement age increases, he'll have to explain how he can afford a promise others who favor privatization say they can't.

Bush's most salient point is that low-income workers should have a chance to "build wealth." The question is whether denting Social Security, the best program for low-income workers, is the best way to do that. President Clinton's USA accounts _ they'd encourage and subsidize savings by the poor _ would enhance their assets with less risk.

Bush's defenders say he should get credit for boldness and that all these niggling questions come from defenders of the status quo. That, roughly, is what Clinton's defenders said about the niggling questions asked of his health plan a few years back.

But grant the premise: These questions are being posed by supporters of the current system precisely because they believe our economy already gives more than ample weight to risk. Social Security carves out a small area where even the poorest and unluckiest can be guaranteed a modest standard of decency. The burden of proof ought to be on those who would unsettle that patch of secure ground.

Let's be frank: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid inject a bit of socialism into our capitalist economy to limit the pain and harm that risk can impose on the elderly, the poor and the vulnerable. But we don't call it socialism. We call it social insurance and it's a policy we dare not cash in without first having a large family argument. Thanks to Bush and Gore, we will.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group