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Ideology check on Social Security overhaul

On his 60-day, 60-stop Social Security blitz, President Bush tends to emphasize solvency. But in more restricted circles of supporters, the emphasis is on ideology.

A January limited-circulation memo by Peter Wehner, director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, said that the overhaul of Social Security "will be one of the most conservative undertakings of modern times." And, if successful, "will rank as one of the most significant conservative governing achievements ever."

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In public, the administration has shied away from the question of benefit reductions. But Mr. Wehner wrote that "we're going to take a very close look at changing the way benefits are calculated." As to conservatives who press for investment accounts without touching benefits, Wehner calls that "a bad idea."

In case anyone doubts the ideological underpinning of the campaign for Social Security overhaul, Wehner writes that "we consider our Social Security reform not simply an economic challenge but a moral goal and a moral good." And he predicts that the debate over Social Security "is going to be a monumental clash of ideas" that will help the nation "to move away from dependency on government."

What is the origin of the president's preoccupation with turning back the clock on a program going back to FDR? In 1997, Mr. Bush had dinner at the governor's mansion in Austin with Ed Crane, president of the libertarian Cato Institute, and José Piñera, who, as labor minister in the Pinochet government in Chile, had taken that country's pension system private. According to Mr. Crane, who confirmed to me a report in Mother Jones magazine, Governor Bush said, "José, you make a very compelling case. I do believe that privatizing Social Security is the most important domestic issue facing this nation."

If Republicans and Democrats are having trouble finding common ground for negotiation, is it because it can be hard to compromise with a crusade?

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.