President Bush's political allies are raising millions of dollars for an election-style campaign to promote private Social Security accounts, as Democrats and Republicans prepare for what they predict will be the most expensive and extensive public policy debate since the 1993 fight over the Clinton administration's failed health care plan.
With Bush planning to unveil the details of his Social Security plan this month, several GOP groups close to the White House are asking the same donors who helped reelect Bush to fund an extensive campaign to convince Americans -- and skeptical lawmakers -- that Social Security is in crisis and that private accounts are the only cure.
Progress for America, an independent conservative group that backed Bush in the campaign, has set aside about $9 million to support the president's Social Security plan as well as other White House domestic priorities in the new year, said spokesman Brian McCabe. The group is asking its donors for much more, he said.
Stephen Moore, head of the conservative Club for Growth, has raised $1.5 million and hopes to hit a $15 million target when his fundraising drive ends.
But their contributions are likely to be dwarfed by those from corporate trade associations, spearheaded by the National Association of Manufacturers. Other likely contributors include the financial services and securities industries and other Fortune 500 companies, GOP officials say. White House officials, led by Karl Rove and Charles P. Blahous III, the president's policy point man on Social Security, are helping to shape the public relations campaign, said the officials, who talked about private discussions with the White House on the condition of anonymity.
"It could easily be a $50 million to $100 million cost to convince people this is legislation that needs to be enacted," Moore said. "It's going to be expensive" because "it's the most important public policy fight in 25 years," he said.
Republicans are expediting their fundraising plans after learning that AARP, the influential seniors group that supported Bush's Medicare program but opposes his Social Security designs, will spend $5 million in the first two weeks of this month attacking the president's plan to allow younger workers to invest part of their Social Security contributions in the stock market. AARP plans to run full-page ads in 50 large newspapers to coincide with the return of Congress next week. In one ad, a couple in their forties says, "If we feel like gambling, we'll play the slots."
AARP will be joined by a large number of Democratic groups, including the AFL-CIO, the NAACP and the National Organization for Women. They are coordinating their work with Democratic congressional leaders, all of whom oppose the private investment accounts.
Both sides say the fight could eventually become the most expensive lobbying campaign Washington has witnessed because the stakes are so high for businesses and taxpayers and the issue is so complex for most Americans.