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Bush's Social Security reform taps into wave of individualism

Let's savor the irony.

Here's George W. Bush, widely derided as a smirking dolt, who proposes a partial privatization of Social Security that not only has Republican support, but also has the indirect endorsement of such big-bulb Democrats as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

And here's Al Gore, priding himself as being ahead of the curve on such future-tense issues as nuclear strategy and global-warming, who now has forsaken that new-ideas legacy and staked his fate to the most reactionary elements in the Democratic Party.

So what gives? Obviously, both presidential candidates are obligated to stand for the agenda of their respective parties. And on a slew of issues, those agendas are growing more divergent, based as they are on different conceptions of how America is organized.

Those differing conceptions have been best explained by Michael Barone, the journalist/historian who co-authors "The Almanac of American Politics." Not so long ago, Barone observes, America was a country of "big units" _ that is, Big Business contending with Big Labor, and Big Government presiding over both.

But in recent decades, big units, from major cities to manufacturing conglomerates, have withered in the face of competition and innovation. Smaller units, from suburbs to entrepreneurial start-ups, have proved more nimble, and so whole new sectors and industries have sprung up to provide more fizz to the economy and more choice to consumers. Republicans have on the whole been quicker to embrace these smaller units, while Democrats, staying loyal to the New Deal institutions that undergirded their power, have opposed efforts to devolve the big-unit status quo.

Yet when big units are broken down into small units, the benefits are widespread. Consider welfare. Until 1996, it was a program run out of Washington, and the results were a disaster of despair and dependence. But in that year, President Clinton signed a Republican welfare bill that turned the program into 50 small units and sent them back to the states. The result has been an explosion of humanely effective experimentation that has seen nationwide welfare roles plummet by some 37 percent.

But if welfare can be shrunk so drastically, where does that leave the federal welfare state, the ultimate expression of the old-line big-unit vision? And the political party that clings to that vision? Fearful Democrats have recently started drawing a firmer line against further attempts to devolve such big-unit bureaucracies as public education and Medicare. They vigorously oppose small-unit reforms such as school vouchers and medical savings accounts. Bush has long supported these efforts, albeit cautiously.

But now, just as the elite press has written him off as the closest thing to Dan Quayle since Dan Quayle, Bush has challenged the biggest federal unit of all: Social Security. As he put it on last week, "There is a fundamental difference between my opponent and me. He trusts only government to handle our retirement. I trust individual Americans." Aside from the one inexactitude in Bush's comment _ who thinks that Gore will depend solely on Uncle Sam in his old age? _ that's a proposition that the vice president can hardly dispute.

And he won't. Gore immediately attacked Bush's plan with the calculated fury he applied to Bill Bradley in the primaries, after Bradley had endorsed some of the same small-unit reforms that most Washington experts see as inevitable.

But here's the difference: Gore bested Bradley inside the Democratic Party, dominated as it is by big-unit constituencies. Now Gore must take on Bush in the larger national arena, before a country that increasingly believes in small units, and believes further that the smallest units of all _ individuals and families _ must take charge of their own retirement planning.

The next six months will be rough on Bush; Gore will doubtless master the arcana of the issue better than the Texas governor and seek to clobber him on it. But 20 years ago, the last Republican governor to seek the presidency, Ronald Reagan, was frequently outmatched on debate points by another fact-wielding wonk, Jimmy Carter, and yet Reagan won, thanks in part to the power of better ideas.

Bush may be an unremarkable intellect, but he possesses, in this instance at least, the remarkable vision to see the winning wave of the future.

+ James P. Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist and a member of its editorial board. +

Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service