The most puzzling aspect of John McCain’s political persona is his habitual attraction to George W. Bush’s bad ideas. Their shared enthusiasm for invading Iraq and then escalating the war is why “McSame” will soon become the new shorthand for the Arizona Republican, replacing “maverick” — but that isn’t the only reason. He doesn’t just endorse the disastrous foreign policy initiatives; he loves the failed domestic policy schemes, too.

Specifically, McCain is a longtime supporter of President Bush’s Social Security privatization initiative, last seen descending into oblivion only months after its introduction in 2005. He played a cameo role in the promotion of that notion (which never became an actual plan or bill in Congress) when the White House trotted him in for one of the president’s staged public “conversations” on the subject. Back then his pleas for everyone to sit down and negotiate the surrender of Social Security to Wall Street were universally ignored, yet that scarcely seems to have discouraged him.

Actually, McCain supported Social Security privatization before it was uncool, when he first ran for president eight years ago. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that a proposal to divert a portion of payroll taxes to finance private accounts, like the Bush scheme, was “a centerpiece of a McCain presidential bid in 2000.” Both he and Bush have wanted to dismantle Social Security for many years, in fact, and he has indicated that will be an important goal for a McCain presidency.

Sensibly enough, however, his advisers are trying to mute such themes in his campaign, knowing that privatization is extremely unpopular. They may have noticed that $50 million worth of advertising and promotion didn’t work three years ago. They may also have noticed that their candidate is poorly equipped to discuss the issue. As he once confessed, “the issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should.”

So, on the McCain campaign Web site, the section concerning Social Security merely suggests he would “supplement” the existing system with personal investment accounts — a suggestion that is entirely different from the more radical kind of privatization he has supported in the past.

But when The Wall Street Journal inquired about the discrepancy between his Web site and his previous statements, the candidate declared that his own position has never changed.

“I’m totally in favor of personal savings accounts,” he said. “As part of Social Security reform, I believe that private savings accounts are a part of it — along the lines that President Bush proposed.” (The other “parts” would include sharp benefit cuts, if the senator’s past votes and statements provide any guide to future policy.) “I’ll correct any policy paper that I’ve put out that might intimate that personal savings accounts are not a very important factor,” he vowed.

Perhaps the old “straight talker” was simply saying what he thought would please powerful readers of the Journal, a newspaper whose editorial page avidly supports privatized accounts. But privatization is still not emphasized on the McCain Web site, to say the least. He doesn’t utter a word about private accounts in a video on the site titled “Social Security.”

Instead, he pledges in that video to seek the same kind of solution achieved by President Ronald Reagan and the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill more than two decades ago. Following the advice of a commission headed by Alan Greenspan, who has since come and gone as Federal Reserve chairman, the president and the Democratic congressional leadership agreed to bolster the system with new revenues and minor benefit changes. Although Reagan and Greenspan both had long disparaged Social Security, they didn’t broach the topic of privatization.

Invoking the once-magical names of Reagan and Greenspan may work well on YouTube, particularly among the more gullible segments of the voting public. Between his remarks to the Journal and his video statement, it isn’t easy to determine whether McCain means to preserve, reform or destroy Social Security, but the safest assumption is that he will pursue the same objectives President Bush was forced to abandon.

As one of the wealthiest men in the Senate — thanks to the highly profitable liquor company bequeathed to him and his wife years ago — McCain faces no economic difficulty. He never has to worry about how he will afford retirement or the value of his assets, which is why risky schemes like privatization look so brilliant to him. But in the coming campaign, he may find that working families have no desire to turn Social Security over to the same companies now seeking bailouts from the federal government — or to the politicians who would enact that investment bankers’ daydream.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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