The talk was small for Dick Cheney: the virtues of duck-hunting, the recent renovation of his mansion and the history of conservatism in Congress. Yet the reception for 40 members of the conservative Republican Study Committee was also unusually personal for the veep. Munching on mini-cheeseburgers in his official residence, Cheney chatted with small groups of lawmakers, saying he understood their position--after all, he was once a member of the RSC when he served in the House. "It was very casual," says Kevin Brady, a five-term Texas Republican, "or as casual as you can be at the vice president's house." Casual enough for some frank talk about Social Security--what one guest called the elephant in the room. One lawmaker bluntly told the veep the party wouldn't support lifting the cap on payroll taxes. Others warned of the budget-busting cost of the transition to private accounts. Cheney, on the verge of his own town-hall-style sessions, listened carefully. "We still have a long way to go," he reassured his nervous guests.
Behind the highly public campaign of presidential roadshows and TV ads, the administration is staging a private sales pitch to a much more exclusive audience. Bush himself has invited small groups of GOP lawmakers to the family sitting room in the White House residence--a quiet chance to impress on them how personally committed he is to fixing Social Security this year. For a White House better known for treating Congress like ground troops, not generals, it's a striking charm offensive. Bush's aides declare their burning desire to listen to all opinions (no matter how disagreeable), and note down advice on how to speak about Social Security.
They have good reason to tread cautiously. According to the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, only 33 percent approve of the president's handling of Social Security; 59 percent disapprove. President Bush lags far behind his Democratic opponents in Congress when it comes to the question of trust on Social Security (33 percent trust Bush; 44 percent trust Democrats). Those numbers reflect a united Democratic Party that refuses to negotiate with the GOP until Bush's version of private accounts is taken off the table. White House officials see their approach as the best way to build a coalition, insisting they are happy with their progress to date. "Part of this is making sure everybody has a chance to be heard," Karl Rove told NEWSWEEK. "We like the ferment and the ideas bubbling up."
Two months into its drive to overhaul Social Security, the White House is casting about for help and fresh ideas. Cheney and Rove sat down recently with a newly formed group of congressional Republicans who are calling themselves the House retirement-message committee. But at the strategy session inside the veep's ornate reception room, overlooking the West Wing, there was no agreement on how to talk to voters about investment accounts, or when to start debating a detailed solution. Rep. Sam Johnson told how he tries to persuade seniors in his Texas district to support private accounts by asking them to send in pictures of their grandchildren. The message: do it for the kids. Johnson's photos fit neatly into this phase of the Bush campaign. According to Rove, the current goal is to reassure seniors and those close to retirement that their benefits are protected, while urging them to help future generations. Small wonder that the president's latest partner on the road is his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush.
That doesn't mean the softball tactics are here to stay. After their Easter recess, congressional Republicans expect to shift from defining the problem to identifying solutions. That's when the political heat on both parties will start to rise. "There's a growing recognition that this is a big issue and both parties will be rewarded if they address it," says Rove, "and people who obstruct a solution will be punished by voters." In other words, enjoy the velvet glove, but don't forget there's a steel fist inside.