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What kind of leader is Bush

Just a few months ago, George Bush was presenting himself to the country as a strong leader, willing to do what’s right regardless of the consequences.

He submitted exactly one piece of evidence to bolster that contention — his performance in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But on Social Security we are seeing the president’s true colors.Just a few months ago, George Bush was presenting himself to the country as a strong leader, willing to do what’s right regardless of the consequences.

He submitted exactly one piece of evidence to bolster that contention — his performance in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But on Social Security we are seeing the president’s true colors.

In 2000, Bush declared privatizing Social Security one of his central domestic initiatives. But with another election then just four years away, Bush punted. He created a commission to develop a plan and take the heat.

The commission report was itself too hot for the president. It concluded, as did everyone else who has examined privatization, that to do what the president wants to do requires cutting So just a few months ago, George Bush was presenting himself to the country as a strong leader, willing to do what’s right regardless of the consequences.

He submitted exactly one piece of evidence to bolster that contention — his performance in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But on Social Security we are seeing the president’s true colors.

In 2000, Bush declared privatizing Social Security one of his central domestic initiatives. But with another election then just four years away, Bush punted. He created a commission to develop a plan and take the heat.

The commission report was itself too hot for the president. It concluded, as did everyone else who has examined privatization, that to do what the president wants to do requires cutting Social Security benefits. The commission suggested three options for the president to consider. Each one cut Social Security benefits.

Unwilling to take political risks, the president ignored the commission — and the issue — until his convention, where, for the one and only time in the campaign, he declared privatizing Social Security a top priority for his second term. He didn’t have the nerve to release a plan, or even to endorse any of the options suggested by his own commission.

Just after the election, the president’s spokespeople claimed a mandate for privatization. You can be sure that few if any voters knew that is what they were voting for. The GOP spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads. Not one of them mentioned privatizing Social Security. The mandate was not real, but the claim made it appear that the president was hanging tough.

It was just a mirage. Upon reflection, the president ran and hid. No strong leadership there. “Why don’t I stick with general principles and let you guys in the Congress take the heat for the specifics of a plan?” Bush suggested.

What kind of leader maintains for five years that an issue is a top priority and spends millions of the taxpayers’ money on a commission but doesn’t have the guts to put forward his own plan?

Make no mistake; if Democrats and Social Security advocates play their cards right, this issue will be a political disaster for Republicans. A majority of Americans favors the principle of private accounts, but they overwhelmingly oppose the consequences.

In the early going, too much of the messaging has been about the principle — don’t risk Social Security in the stock market. Voters’ real objection, though, is to the consequences. More than anything else, voters will not countenance cutting Social Security benefits, which is an inevitable consequence of the president’s goal. Voters are similarly unwilling to increase the deficit by $2 trillion to accommodate the president’s plan.

Those two elements, not stock market roulette, should be the core of the critique. Presenting this case will likely be devastating for Republicans.

How do we know? We’ve already had this debate and run this election. Democrats’ comeback after the debacle of 1994 resulted from a focus on Republican efforts to cut Medicare, along with education and the environment. Then, Democrats worried we could not sustain a fight on Medicare because it was not as popular as Social Security. The year 1996 demonstrated the potency of Medicare. The president’s plan to cut Social Security could be just as damaging to his party in ’06 and beyond as Medicare cuts were in 1995.

Of course, we will only have this debate if the president has the nerve, the strength, to follow through and stick by his guns. We’ll see very clearly just what kind of leader Bush is.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.