ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – President Bush accused Sen. John Kerry on Tuesday of playing “the politics of fear” by seeking to inflame voter anxieties that Bush will ruin Social Security and restore the military draft if he’s re-elected.

Campaigning in Florida, the president assured voters that he wouldn’t dismantle Social Security or revive the draft, while Kerry, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., tore anew into Bush’s promise to partially privatize Social Security.

With just two weeks until Election Day, Bush and Kerry are trying to swat down false accusations from each other while hurling questionable charges. In the process, each has mischaracterized the other’s views.

Bush, for example, hoping to erode voter faith in Kerry as a commander in chief, often claims that the Massachusetts senator would give foreign nations veto power over U.S. military operations. Kerry has repeatedly said just the opposite.

Kerry has ignored Bush’s views in attacking the president’s plans for Social Security and the draft. During a stop Tuesday in Pennsylvania, the state with the second-highest percentage of elderly residents, after Florida, Kerry said Bush was planning an “all-out assault on Social Security.”

“George Bush wants to finish the job he started in his first term,” Kerry told a crowd in Wilkes-Barre. “He wants to be the first president in history to put the greatest retirement program in American history at risk. … This is what the president must mean when he talks about his “ownership society’: When it comes to your retirement, you’re on your own.”

The president has proposed allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market as a way of fixing the long-term solvency of the system, and in the hope that these future beneficiaries would get higher returns than the government program currently does.

Younger workers would continue to contribute to traditional Social Security, and Bush has promised that retirees and workers near retirement age would see no change in benefits.

The president hasn’t explained how he’d make up the money – up to $2 trillion – that would be diverted from Social Security benefits to the stock market as younger workers shift to a privatized system.

Citing a Congressional Budget Office report, Kerry said the Bush plan would force a cut in Social Security benefits of up to 45 percent, implying that those cuts would affect current beneficiaries. The same charge is made in a Kerry campaign ad that’s airing now.

That’s misleading. The president hasn’t spelled out specifics of his proposal, but he’s pledged that it wouldn’t cut benefits to current seniors, and the CBO said benefits would have to be cut 30 percent for people who were born in the 1980s when they retire. The 45 percent figure would apply to people born later this decade, the study said.

Kerry argued that Bush, in enacting tax cuts that helped drain a $5.6 trillion budget surplus, had squandered a chance to shore up Social Security.

“The money he spent on tax cuts for those making over $1 million a year could have saved Social Security for 75 years,” Kerry said.

Kerry hasn’t spelled out exactly how he’d “save” Social Security, and he’s put himself in a rhetorical box: “I will not privatize Social Security. I will not cut the benefits. I will not raise the retirement age,” he said Monday.

He said he could secure the program by restoring fiscal discipline in Washington and reducing the budget deficit, which he pledged to do by restoring the “pay as you go” principle for spending and tax cuts and seeking a “constitutionally permissible” line-item veto.

Social Security trustees estimated in their 2004 annual report that the system, left unchanged, will begin to pay out more benefits than it receives in annual revenue in 2018, and that by 2043 revenues will be sufficient to cover only 73 percent of promised benefits.

Social Security could be brought into actuarial balance over the next 75 years in various ways, including an immediate increase in payroll taxes of 15 percent, an immediate reduction in benefits of 13 percent or some combination of the two, the actuaries said. Delay would require the adjustments to be bigger, they said.

Kerry also routinely tries to stoke fears of a new military draft.

On Monday in Florida, he suggested again that there’d be a “great potential” for a military draft if Bush wins Nov. 2.

On Tuesday, the president sought to put those fears to rest during a bus tour through central Florida. He accused Kerry of resorting to “the politics of fear.”

“I will do what I’ve said I will do. We will keep the promise of Social Security for all our seniors,” Bush told several thousand supporters at Progress Energy Park, a St. Petersburg baseball field. “We will not have a draft; we’ll keep the all-volunteer army.”

Bush’s campaign advisers are particularly concerned about talk of a draft. The president and his military advisers have said repeatedly that they oppose a draft, but skeptics question their ability to maintain adequate troop levels if the war in Iraq drags on, especially if another foreign crisis erupts, such as Iran building nuclear weapons.

White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said draft fears were a “two-fer” for Kerry because they could hurt Bush with mothers and draft-age youth.

“It’s very strategic. He’s underperforming with women and he’s underperforming with youth,” Bartlett said of the Democratic candidate. “It’s deeply irresponsible.”

Hutcheson was with Bush in Florida; Fitzgerald was with Kerry in Pennsylvania.


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