Luntz: It is “simply not accurate” to call Bush Social Security plan “privatizing;” until recently, other conservatives disagreed

GOP pollster Frank Luntz insisted it is “simply not accurate” to call President Bush's Social Security plan “privatizing,” but the country's leading advocates for Bush's plan, including Bush himself, used the term “privatization” freely until recently, when Luntz's polling showed the term was unpopular.

In a March 18 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Luntz defended the specialized terminology laid out in his briefing book, A New American Lexicon, a guide to framing language regarding controversial issues for his business and political clients. As an example, Luntz advocated “talking about how the president's plan 'personalizes' Social Security,” claiming it is inaccurate for critics to describe President Bush's Social Security reform proposals as “privatizing.”

But leading advocates for Bush's proposal disagree. The Cato Institute, a conservative think tank and a leading advocate of Social Security privatization, launched its "Project on Social Security Privatization" in 1995, though it has since changed its name to the "Project on Social Security Choice." Cato described proposals to divert a portion of payroll taxes into private accounts as “partial privatization” of the Social Security system. Bush himself has used the term as well. The Washington Post detailed on January 23 how conservatives have recently eschewed the “privatization” label when discussing Social Security, and noted that Bush referred to “private accounts” when discussing Social Security three times in a speech in the fall of 2004.

Luntz advocates “personal” over “private,” not because the former is more accurate, but because it polls better. A memo from the Luntz Research Companies to Republicans in Congress illustrated the different reactions the two terms receive in polls:

And PLEASE, remember that you are NEVER talking about privatizing Social Security, nor are you advocating INDIVIDUAL accounts. You are talking about creating PERSONAL retirement accounts. So far, therethere [sic] has been generally strict message discipline here, but every now and then, I still catch members and staffers slip up. If you don't believe me, let the numbers convince you:

Personalizing Social Security has a 17% higher favorability rating than privatizing it. That is, 51% of Americans believe personalizing the program is a good idea, while only 3.4% [sic] believe privatizing is.

41% of Americans prefer a PERSONAL retirement account to an INDIVIDUAL retirement account.

If necessary, do what I do, and institute a strict policy among your staff that anytime someone uses either “privatize” or “individual” in the context of Social Security, they must pay you $50. It works.

The Los Angeles Times did not identify Luntz as a partisan pollster, but instead wrote: “Frank I. Luntz's clients have included Fortune 100 CEOs, leaders of countries and politicians such as [former New York City mayor] Rudolph Giuliani and [current New York City mayor] Michael Bloomberg.” Media Matters for America has documented Luntz's questionable credibility and avowed partisanship, and has noted that his GOP ties have often gone undisclosed by media outlets that have hosted him.