Has the collapse of Enron finally pushed Social Security "reform" off the political agenda for the foreseeable future? Half the stock on Enron employees' 401K retirement plans was Enron paper, contributed as a company match, for which, of course, Enron took tax deductions. Then, when Enron went into its final plunge, Enron's executives froze the stock on the 401K plans, thus denying workers any chance to salvage their retirement funds, even as the stock went through the floor. Senior executives skipped clear of the rubble, and then sent in cops and grief counselors to subdue their furious employees.

September 11 interrupted many political conspiracies in America, few more fraught than the long campaign to "reform" Social Security. And, as with many other nefarious projects, September 11 placed the Bush team on far more favorable ground than the mire in which he found himself at the end of the summer, unable to balance the books without a raid on Social Security's famous lockbox, meaning the pledge not to use any surplus on the Social Security account for other purposes.

In these triumphant days of the great War on Terror, Bush has to worry far less about the sort of promises he was spouting on the campaign trail in 2000 when he was telling crowds that protection of the Social Security trust fund was going to be one of his prime priorities.

Now, the fall of Enron, whose CEO, Ken Lay, gave Bush $2 million for his presidential campaign, has once again thrown the reform lobby on the defensive. But for how long? Consider what a close call the system had in the Clinton era.

Accounts by Clinton White House insiders this last summer have made it clear that had it not been for Monica Lewinsky's captivating smile and the inviting snap of her famous thong, President Bill Clinton would have consummated the politics of triangulation, heeding the counsel of a secret White House team headed by Treasury's Larry Summers. Late in 1998, or in the State of the Union message of 1999, a solemn Clinton would have told Congress and the nation that just like welfare, Social Security was broke, had to be fixed and its immense pool of capital tendered in part to the mutual funds industry. The itinerary mapped out for Clinton by the Democratic Leadership Committee would have been complete.

It was a desperately close run thing. On the recent account of Clinton's secret White House team tasked to map out the privatization path for Social Security, they had gotten as far down the road as fine-tuning the computer numbers for accounts to be released to the captious mercies of Wall Street. But in 1998, the Lewinsky scandal burst upon the president, and, as the months sped by, and impeachment swelled from a remote specter to hideous reality, Clinton's polls told him that his only hope was to nourish widespread popular dislike for the hoity toity elites intoning his political death warrant.

By the end of 1998, the secret team concluded with a heavy heart that the escalating Lewinsky affair might doom all their efforts. The president wanted to be seen as doing something dramatic for Social Security, but nothing risky. So, in an instant, Clinton spun on the dime and became Social Security's mighty champion, coining the slogan Save Social Security First.

In his 1999 State of the Union address, Clinton seized the initiative from the privatizers with a bold new plan that gave substance to the "Save Social Security First" slogan. He proposed that 62 percent of the budget surplus be used to build up the Social Security trust fund. He promised to veto any attempt to divert Social Security trust funds to other uses, and he urged that 15 percent of the trust fund be invested in the stock market, not by individuals but by the Social Security Administration.

The Clinton plan as a whole went well with the American people. Republicans were compelled to insist swiftly that they, too, would gave priority to the defense of Social Security.

But despite the political perils, Social Security reform will always loom on the political agenda. The question is: on what terms? Government can either hand over chunks of the system to Wall Street and court the risks of Enron writ large. Or government can build on the original mandate of Social Security as a public endeavor, including one element of the original Clinton strategy, namely the idea that the Trust Fund acquire its own assets. In a recession-hit economy these could include public bonds linked to investment in education or urban renewal, or they could involve injecting funds into downcast by post-bubble blues. This would be fully in accord with the hopes of many of the proponents of the Trust Fund when it was added to the system in 1939.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.