Kerry: Bush Social Security Plan a 'Rip-Off'

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, citing the war in Iraq and other trouble spots in the world, raised the possibility Wednesday that a military draft could be reinstated if voters re-elect President Bush.

Kerry said he would not bring back the draft and questioned how fairly it was administered in the past.

Answering a question about the draft that had been posed at a forum with voters, Kerry said: "If George Bush were to be re-elected, given the way he has gone about this war and given his avoidance of responsibility in North Korea and Iran and other places, is it possible? I can't tell you."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials have been asked numerous times whether they thought a draft would be necessary to maintain force levels in Iraq. They have said consistently that they think it is neither necessary nor desirable, since today's military is built on volunteer service and professionalism.

His voice scratchy and breaking from a cold, Kerry called the president's proposal to give workers partly private Social Security accounts a windfall for financial companies and one that will cut benefits for senior citizens.

"He's driving seniors right out of the middle class," Kerry said in a battleground state rich with voters keenly watching the candidates talk about two pillars of retirement, Social Security and Medicare.

"I will never privatize Social Security, ever," Kerry said, repeating promises not to raise the retirement age or cut benefits.

Kerry's two-day swing through Florida, which began Tuesday, follows deadly hurricanes that nearly halted polling and politicking in the state. Bush made his third campaign-season trip to Florida this week to assess damage caused by Hurricane Ivan. Kerry has been to the state that decided the 2000 election nine times this year.

Kerry opened the town hall-style meeting about government benefits by repeating his charges that the president is divorced from realities in Iraq and ignoring the manhunt for terrorists in Afghanistan. "Usama bin Forgotten," Kerry said.

Noting that the campaign Tuesday night neared Disney's "fantasy land" in Orlando, Fla., Kerry said: "The difference between George Bush and me is that I drove by it. He lives in it."

Returning to seniors' issues, Kerry said Bush made life harder for seniors with a Medicare drug benefit that doesn't let the government bargain for lower costs.

Kerry also cited a study by Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago business professor and informal adviser to the Kerry campaign, to say the president's Social Security proposal will cost seniors.

Bush favors allowing young workers to create voluntary personal savings accounts with some of the money they now pay into the Social Security system, a change he insists will not increase payroll taxes or change benefits for retirees or near retirees.

Goolsbee examined one model that proposes workers set aside a small percentage of their pay in private accounts as a method to adjust Social Security to a rapidly graying population, concluding that fees charged by financial companies could reap them hundreds of billions of dollars and eat 20 percent of the benefits in an account held by a worker making an average salary.

The Bush-Cheney campaign said the study makes assumptions based on policy decisions not yet made and contended that Kerry hasn't explained how he'd meet the challenges posed to Social Security by aging Baby Boomers.

"His record is one of voting for higher taxes on current retirees and ignoring the needs of future retirees," said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt.

Kerry wants to bolster the retirement program by reducing the deficit and expanding the economy. Some experts say economic growth might be insufficient to cover future benefits because those benefits grow as wages increase.

The Massachusetts senator also wants to improve Medicare by retooling the recently passed prescription drug benefit to let the government negotiate for bulk discounts on drugs.