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Social Security proposal makes for a good production

George W. Bush threw a match onto a dry presidential campaign last week when he rolled out his proposal to let younger workers divert part of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private retirement accounts.

Whether he burned himself won't be clear until we know more about how voters are reacting and how Al Gore's counter-attacks are playing. But the Texas governor may have triggered a debate that will have more staying power than skirmishes over the environment and education, particularly in Florida.

First, a few basics.

Eventually, some president and some Congress are going to have to confront the problem they have put off for years. Social Security, which now has a surplus of cash, will start running deficits in 2024 as more Baby Boomers retire. By 2037, it would be insolvent if nothing is done.

Social Security provides a clearer contrast between Bush and Gore than other high-profile issues, where policy differences often come in shades of gray rather than in black and white.

Bush wants to give younger workers more control over their retirement by letting them invest a small portion of the tax money that now goes to Social Security. Gore wants to use the Social Security surplus to pay down the national debt, which would reduce the federal government's interest payments and free up money that could extend the financial viability of the program.

Beyond that thumbnail sketch, the debate quickly gets complicated. There are enough variables to keep economists and demographers busy for months as they examine everything from the volatility of the stock market to the aging of America.

The politics are just as engaging and multifaceted.

Bush has been talking about private retirement accounts for months. He mentioned the concept in his first campaign speech last June in Iowa. Yet he unveiled it again last week, much like bringing a play to Broadway after opening in Des Moines.

It was a full-scale production.

By e-mail, reporters were sent copies of Bush's speech in California. It was accompanied by dozens of pages of charts and background material. There also were two national conference calls where the campaign's spokesmen and chief economic adviser fielded questions. Then came the ground fire. The centrist Republican Leadership Council chimed in with its endorsement along with other Bush-friendly groups to create the impression of broad support.

For Bush, highlighting his Social Security proposal is a calculated risk.

First, it provides the Texas governor with a far better issue to promote than massive tax cuts. Voters, including many Republicans, don't care about tax cuts in a booming economy. They do care about Social Security.

Second, it helps Bush combat an image that dogged his father. A campaign that to date has been short on bright ideas and long on risk-avoidance can begin to look visionary if it speaks to future concerns. The Texas governor's call for private investment accounts is bold enough to qualify as leadership, yet mainstream enough to avoid most charges of recklessness.

By design, Bush's plan is short on specifics.

He doesn't specify which workers could take advantage of the new private accounts and which older workers would be guaranteed their existing benefits. He doesn't say whether workers who lost money in their private investment accounts would see their benefits cut.

In that way, Bush ensures that Gore can't pick him apart the way the vice president chipped away at Bill Bradley.

During the Democratic primary, Bradley unveiled a detailed, creative proposal to provide health insurance to nearly every American. Gore trashed it by seizing on tiny details and distorting them. Bradley's protests that he was flexible on the specifics fell on deaf ears.

With Bush, Gore has been forced to alter his attack. The vice president is shooting at what the Texas governor isn't saying instead of what he is saying. That is a tougher target to hit.

"I don't think it's responsible to say, "Let's make a dramatic change and we'll worry about how to pay for it or whether we can pay for it some other time,' " Gore said last week at the AARP convention in Orlando. "Can we really settle for so many unanswered questions on an issue as great as Social Security?"

That's hardly enough to send voters leaping off their couches. Bush also has an effective response to Gore's contention that his proposal is too "radical." The Texas governor reminds everyone that the Clinton administration wanted the government to invest a portion of the Social Security money in the stock market. Once again, Gore sounds like a guy who changes positions as easily as he changes clothes.

Of course, this could still backfire on Bush.

Gore could succeed in scaring retirees and older workers who are more likely to vote, even though Bush assures them their benefits would be protected.

Or the stock market could crash, underscoring the risk in diverting money from Social Security into private accounts.

Or Bush could talk himself into trouble as he is pressed to provide more details.

This is why campaigns aren't like theater productions. No matter how many times you see the show, you can't be sure of the ending.