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Along the third rail

One of the unheralded pillars of Republican Senate nominee Mike McGavick’s campaign is his take on Social Security, a subject until not so long ago traditionally avoided by campaigning Republicans.

Mike McGavickIt became less avoidable (and we don’t mean to imply that McGavick would have wanted to skirt it) in this race with a confluence of two elements: President Bush’s highly unpopular Social Security proposal from last year, which put the issue squarely on the table, coupled with McGavick’s background as CEO of a large insurance company (SafeCo). After all, as McGavick routinely points out, Social Security is a sort of insurance, and it makes sense he’d have something to say about it.

That doesn’t mean what he has to say gets said without risk – or countering.

Here’s how it went at his Open Mike event in Colville.

He distances himself, first, from Bush’s plan, saying he doesn’t support it. And McGavick’s does look different – to a point. His first point is to suggest “voluntary means testing” for Social Security – in other words, encouraging those who don’t need the money to give some or all of it back. If they want to. “I think those who have the means will be very generous if called upon,” he remarked; but you get the sense not many people are taking this one to the bank with high expectations.

He said that workers nearing retirement should get what they’ve been promised. For younger workers, he said, Social Security should not be privatized and should remain government-run, but “the money should go into a specific account in that person’s name, so the government can’t monkey with it.” That, he said, would give younger workers a sense of confidence the money would be there for them. (How instilling the confidence in a system declared to be broken would solve the problem, is pretty much left unsaid.)

At this point, McGavick generally has asked younger people in the audience how many have confidence Social Security will be available for them down the line, and the results usually suggest pessimism. Of course, a population which hasn’t taken an economist’s eye view to the matter but was exposed last year to months of headlines suggesting the system was in crisis and at imminent risk of collapse – which hasn’t yet happened and isn’t imminent – is apt to be uneasy.

At this point in Colville, however, one woman remarked, “There’s many ways you can fix social security.” What about, she asked, the views of a number of economists that Social Security is essentially sound, for at least a couple of decades, if the rest of the federal government would quit raiding it?

“I’ll make it real clear – I appreciate your view,” McGavick said in reply. “You are the person – the one – in the whole state so far that’s agreed. Now, that’s doesn’t mean you’re wrong. But I will say that is not the common view of those 30 or younger.”

“Because you’ve scared them all so much,” she countered – drawing a mix of response in the crowd.

“No, I don’t think so,” McGavick said. “It’s okay we disagree – I don’t know why you accuse me of scaring people. … I believe it is going to go broke. I happen to be in the insurance business. I understand this business. I understand acturial projections. This system is in real trouble. It is a serious issue. And how to fix it is one of the most pressing problems facing America.”

It wouldn’t be remotely accurate or fair to call McGavick’s proposal a warmed-over version of the Bush privatization plan. But come this fall he may be leaving himself open for that: If the accusation arrives (say, via a TV buy), he may have a hard time arguing against it without leaving the impression his proposal – voluntary givebacks, personal accounts run much as they already are – is at best a vaporous jab at a serious problem. Candidates have known for a long time that Social Security is tough politics. McGavick may demonstration it’s as tough today as it ever was.

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