John McCain came under fire on Friday from defenders of the current Social Security system after his aides signaled to the Associated Press that the current market turmoil has not altered his support for changing the retirement program to allow individuals to invest some portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in stocks and bonds.
"His midnight conversion from aggressive deregulator to market critic is apparently incomplete," said Jared Bernstein, the senior economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
"He still wants to privatize Social Security to subject retirees to the possibility of this kind of market turmoil," he added. "Imagine what this would have meant to those in the cohort unlucky enough to reach retirement age in a market climate like this one."
Democrats who used President Bush's push for private Social Security accounts to help bring down the Republican Congress in 2006 are hoping to use McCain's stance on the issue to paint him as an "ideologue" who is "impervious to facts." Friday's method of attack, which Bernstein participated in, was a conference call with reporters set up by the liberal group Americans United for Change.
McCain's Social Security stance has sometimes been hard to pin down.
For months, his campaign website has spoken of the senator's support for "supplementing" the existing Social Security system with personally managed accounts. The suggestion left by his website is that his accounts would not replace guaranteed payments and that they would not be financed by diverting a portion of Social Security payroll taxes.
"John McCain supports supplementing the current Social Security system with personal accounts," reads McCain's official website, "but not as a substitute for addressing benefit promises that cannot be kept."
Despite the website's call for "supplementing" the existing system, McCain told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published on March 3 that he supports private savings accounts "along the lines that President Bush proposed."
Told that his support for Bush-style private accounts was at odds with the way in which his website describes his position, McCain said he would change his campaign web site.
Talking to an NBC affiliate in Miami on May 20, McCain reiterated his support for private accounts, saying, "I still believe that private savings accounts, if young workers want to have them, is an option that they should be able to have. I don't see why we should prevent them from being able to take some of their taxes and put it into an account with their name on it. Certainly I would not force anybody to do it. And certainly it wouldn't apply to anyone over age 55. But people like to have accounts with their names on them."
Although the Journal reported that McCain promised to change his website, it still talks of "supplementing" the existing system, obscuring the fact that he favors a proposal similar to Bush which would reduce the minimum benefit guaranteed by the government.
While the Social Security straddle continues on McCain's website, Democrats are planning to couple the financial crisis with the occasions in which McCain has explicitly backed Bush-style accounts to raise doubts about the economic stewardship of the Republican presidential nominee.