SOCIAL SECURITY AS A WEDGE ISSUE….Have you noticed that Republicans are now treating Social Security as a classic wedge issue? Off the top of my head, the following groups have already been targets of attempts to peel them off from the rest of the country:

  • The elderly. They’ve been promised over and over that current retirees and those “close to retirement” won’t be affected. The message is clear: there’s no need to fight us on this since we aren’t going to touch your benefits.

  • The young. George Bush has tacitly endorsed the belief of many young people that Social Security will be bankrupt by the time they retire and that they’ll never get a dime from it. This intergenerational fear is a key component of the private account sales job: after all, regardless of whether private accounts are a good idea, they’re still better than nothing, right?

  • Blacks. Bush met with black leaders on Tuesday to try to convince them that they get a raw deal from the current system because blacks have shorter lifespans and therefore don’t collect their fair share of benefits. The fact that this isn’t true had its usual effect on Bush’s willingness to say it: none at all.

  • The well off. Under the current Social Security system, the well off get relatively lower benefits (compared to contributions) than the poor. In other words, the well off probably would do better with private accounts than they do with the current system. The top 20-30% of income earners are the core wedge group the whole private account concept was built around in the first place.

Republicans are obviously trying to ignite open warfare by playing all of these groups off each other, and it’s potentially a very effective strategy. After all, if you can get active support from the young, the well off, and blacks, while dulling opposition from the elderly, you’ve got quite a coalition. Tell them each different stories and then watch them fight it out with whoever’s left.

(What’s even more ironic is the obvious identity of “whoever’s left”: middle and working class white men, a group that’s among President Bush’s most enthusiastic supporters. You’d think Bush would show them a little more gratitude.)

I suspect this strategy won’t work, because in the end these groups won’t rise to the bait. Still, it’s something to watch out for. It’s a very cynical wedge strategy, something that Republicans have gotten very, very good at over the past few decades.

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