In 1998, the major policy question in Washington was what to do with enormous anticipated federal budget surpluses. Republicans, arguing that a surplus meant the government was taking in too much money, wanted to cut taxes. Clinton wanted to kill any tax-cut proposal before it had a chance to gather support. So in his 1998 State of the Union speech, he came up with a famous slogan.
"What should we do with this projected surplus
?" Clinton said. "I have a simple four-word answer: Save Social Security first."
Soon Clinton was going around the country, touting a coming Social Security "crisis." All of his administration's economic achievements, he said in February 1998, "are threatened by the looming fiscal crisis in Social Security." There should be no new spending — or, more importantly, no tax cuts — "before we take care of the crisis in Social Security that is looming when the baby boomers retire."
A number of Clinton's arguments back then sound uncannily like Bush's today, if one makes a few adjustments for newly revised figures on Social Security's finances. "We have a great opportunity now to take action now to avert a crisis in the Social Security system," Clinton said
, again in February 1998. "By 2030, there will be twice as many elderly as there are today, with only two people working for every person drawing Social Security. After 2032, contributions from payroll taxes will only cover 75 cents on the dollar of current benefits. So we must act, and act now, to save Social Security
Clinton's Social Security-crisis campaign, while a response to Republican plans for the surplus, was also a way for him to go on the political offensive during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. As the scandal grew, he became more interested in fighting off impeachment than forestalling tax cuts. But Social Security remained a potent rhetorical weapon. In September, Vice President Al Gore went to the Capitol for a Social Security pep rally with congressional Democrats, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and others. Gore said that in coming years — by 2032 — "Social Security faces a serious fiscal crisis."
Everyone in the group stayed remarkably on-message as they warned that the future was dire.
"Save Social Security first," said Gore.
"Save Social Security first," said Gephardt.
"Save Social Security first," said Kennedy.
"Save Social Security first," said Boxer.
Today, some of those same lawmakers are leading the opposition to President Bush's initiative and no longer fear a crisis in Social Security. And indeed, by 1999, after GOP tax-cut proposals had been defeated and he escaped conviction in his Senate impeachment trial, Social Security's future became a less urgent issue to Clinton. In his 957-page autobiography, My Life, Clinton included no extended discussion of Social Security at all.
Back in 1998, Democrats realized it was politically safe to rally around Clinton's statements about a Social Security crisis because they knew he did not really intend to take any action that matched his rhetoric
. They also knew that Clinton's words were correct; Social Security was then, as it is now, facing a "looming fiscal crisis." He just didn't plan to do much about it.