George Bush is trying to call the bluff of Democrats, who have been so unified in their opposition to his plan to revamp Social Security. After months of ducking specifics about the hard benefits cuts that will be necessary to fix the system, Bush used his prime-time press conference last week to endorse a plan that would ask future middle- and higher-income retirees to accept smaller benefit checks than they're currently slated to receive, while allowing poor recipients to maintain current benefit levels. In a 60-day effort to push his plan (with its controversial provision for personal investment accounts), Bush had failed to convince the public or even his allies in Congress. He hopes that by getting more specific, he will show that his opposition isn't being specific at all. "The strategic objective here was to ask Democrats, 'Where's yours?'" says a senior White House aide. "How can they be for protecting the poor and then have a knee-jerk opposition to something that is progressive?"
It was a gamble that, at least initially, did not appear to be paying off. Liberal Democrats immediately charged that the President was slashing the venerable retirement program. Conservatives charged that Bush had signed on to wealth redistribution. And many allies of the White House warned that Bush's very endorsement might galvanize the opposition. "He's taken the one good idea and made it toxic," said a White House supporter.
Bush used his press conference to deflect other criticisms of his Social Security plan as well-- pointing out repeatedly, for example, that the personal accounts would be "voluntary," to reassure future retirees that they wouldn't be forced into an unpredictable stock market. And despite the early bad reviews, Bush aides insist that his scheme for reducing benefits is the sort of centrist approach that should win support. "If there was ever a Third Way idea that Bill Clinton would have endorsed," says an aide, "this is it." --By John F. Dickerson