When Governor George W. Bush suggested radically reforming Social Security during the 2000 Presidential campaign he demonstrated that no policy is too dangerous to touch. Bush brought an end to House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s claim that Social Security was the “third rail” of politics, and he challenged the longstanding view of Social Security as simply a Democratic issue.

Following the 2004 November presidential election, President Bush initiated a serious discussion to reform Social Security – specifically, to shift to a partially privatized system of personal retirement accounts, in which he tried to convince the American public that the crisis facing Social Security was imminent and required systemic reform. Unfortunately he failed to garner public support for his proposal and the idea of private accounts fell by the wayside.

Today, of course, the White House is back in the hands of Democrats, but it looks like conservatives might still be able to influence the debate over reforming Social Security. 

According Fred Barnes in today’s Wall Street Journal a new commission established by President Obama aimed at working to reduce the deficit may actually offer a path to entitlement reform:

A second reform, bolder and more controversial, would means-test Social Security, gradually slowing the growth of benefits for the more affluent but sparing those with lower incomes. The model for this is the Pozen plan, the brainchild of Robert Pozen, a former vice chairman of Fidelity Investments and influential Social Security reformer.

The Pozen strategy would utilize a formula called “progressive indexing.” Future retirees with higher incomes would see their benefits rise less than under the current formula, those with low incomes would continue to get full increases, and the benefits of those with middle incomes would rise according to a sliding scale. Current Medicare recipients would not be affected.

No one, not even those with high wages in the years on which their Social Security benefits are calculated, would face an actual reduction. Under the Pozen plan, higher income workers would have increases in their benefits based on inflation, while those with low incomes would continue to have theirs based on the more generous index of wages.

Of course, as Barnes points out, President Bush endorsed a similar version of the Pozen plan in 2005, which Democrats broadly opposed. And Democrats still have reservations about this proposal – namely that if Social Security was refashioned into a welfare program, its funding would be put into “political jeopardy.”

Whether or not the administration and Congress move forward with some version of the Pozen plan, it’s significant that the Democrat’s grip on Social Security is loosening.  Social Security is no longer exclusively a Democratic-owned issue. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that Republican lawmakers pose a serious threat when it comes to some traditionally Democratic issues. 

Now this is change I can believe in.