Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Dems to Make Social Security Key Issue in 06

Roll Call (subscription required) reports that Congressional Democrats are planning to revive Social Security 'privatization' as an issue in this year's midterm elections:

Privatization to Be ’06 Focus
July 11, 2006
By Erin P. Billings,
Roll Call Staff

Even before the White House recently hinted that Social Security reform was still on the administration’s radar screen, Democratic leaders and their allies privately had been plotting to resurrect an issue they believe can help inch them to electoral victories this fall.

Democratic Congressional leaders are planning a major event later this month and are looking to tie their “anti-privatization” Social Security message to legislative items moving through Congress in the coming weeks. Senate and House Democrats are still working out the details of their strategy, but leadership aides in both chambers say Members plan to bring the issue up on the floor, at home in their districts, in message events and in radio addresses through November.

“We’re going to look for every opportunity to bring it up,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “It’s not going to be just one thing. It’s fair to say you are going to hear people talk about it all the way to the election.”

Democrats believe they can recreate some of the political momentum they gained last year in launching a massive political offensive to sideline the efforts of President Bush to overhaul the entitlement program.

To counter Bush’s argument that the program is broken and will go bankrupt if major revisions are not enacted in the near term, Democrats claimed Bush was trying to put the program in private hands without government protection and create a risky system without guaranteed long-term benefits.

...Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “made a strategic decision a long time ago not to let this go,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman. “We were planning on highlighting the issue anyway, and lo and behold much to our surprise President Bush and House and Senate Republicans a couple of weeks ago went public again with plans to privatize Social Security.”

Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), acknowledged that there are few legislative opportunities left in the House this year to highlight party differences on Social Security revisions. But Daly said Members still plan to “talk about it whenever they can to remind people that this isn’t just a fleeting idea.”

“This is something Republicans are committed to — they want to privatize Social Security,” he said. “Is it politically good for us? Yes. But that’s not why it’s such a big deal. Democrats are committed to protecting Social Security because it is one of our core values.”

...“This, and corruption are the two issues that keep everyone together and that we are united around,” said the senior Democratic Senate staffer. “We are always going to come back to this and remind people that [Republicans] are wrong.”

...The group is drafting scripts for a national media campaign against candidates and incumbents, including GOP Sens. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Rep. Clay Shaw (Fla.), who they believe are at the heart of efforts to put Social Security in private hands and also provide inviting political targets. Americans United plans to begin that advertising blitz no later than the first week in August, kicking off in as many as five of its nearly 20 targeted states.

“Our effort is not about the outcome of the election, but the outcome of the issue,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Americans United.

...Republicans say they aren’t surprised Democrats are returning to their old playbook on Social Security but add it is a risky move for a minority party they contend lacks an agenda of its own. What’s more, GOP sources indicated, a large share of Senate Democrats opposed a Republican proposal earlier this year to prevent illegal immigrants from collecting Social Security credits — an issue that undoubtedly will come up on the stump.

“This is a failing strategy for the Democrats,” said a senior GOP aide. “The last thing they want to do is remind voters once again that they have no plans or alternative solutions.”

...In the nearer term, however, Senate Democrats are planning to link GOP attempts to advance the line-item veto and other budget procedural changes to Social Security privatization and benefit cuts. Already, Reid has asked his Caucus in a letter to paint those issues as “a sneak attack on Social Security and Medicare..."

In one sense, this is no surprise: Democrats have been running on Social Security since the program was created, and I expect that they'll still be going back to the well long after I'm gone. But in recent years, Social Security has not shown much salience as a political issue. A number of Republican candidates who've been attacked on the campaign trail for support of 'privatization' have embraced the issue and prospered. As Bob Novak pointed out in 2002, for example:

...The issue did not herd panicky Social Security recipients into the Democratic pen. A Public Opinion Strategies study shows a 12-percentage point Republican advantage among senior citizens Tuesday.

But will a Republican White House inclined toward caution about radical domestic proposals truly embrace the issue? Conservative activists attending a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning were stunned to hear Bush policy aide Barry Jackson spend 15 minutes extolling Social Security reform, and this is not a White House whose staffers free-lance.

The third rail's failure to work did not result from lack of Democratic trying. Cookie-cutter campaigns were waged coast-to-coast, accusing Republicans of threatening elders with reckless schemes. Nobody was more aggressive than Jack Conway, a telegenic young hope of Kentucky Democrats seeking to unseat three-term Republican Rep. Anne Northup in Louisville's traditionally Democratic 3rd District (carried comfortably by Al Gore against George W. Bush). Northrup was made a prime Democratic target nationally. At one senior citizens rally, Conway displayed a chart showing slumping stock prices and asked: "Would you like your privatized Social Security investment account to look this?" Northrup did not take Tom Davis's advice and retreat, while Conway betrayed the inexperience of a 33-year-old by admitting the alternative to private accounts. "We're going to have to look at the retirement age," said Conway. "We're going to have to look at benefit levels." He later took those options off the table, but it was too late.

Rep. Pat Toomey, a leader in pressing for private accounts, increased his victory margin to 57 percent in his Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania district. Reps. Clay Shaw of Florida and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who in 2000 narrowly won districts containing lots of pensioners, each reached 60 percent Tuesday after campaigning for private accounts.

That was the position of 40-year-old corporate CEO Chris Chocola, who upset a seasoned Democratic campaigner attacking him on Social Security, former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, in traditionally Democratic South Bend, Ind. Another reformer, John Kline, defeated Democratic Rep. Bill Luther on his third try in Minnesota.

Bush's private investment plan was backed by winners of key races that recaptured the Senate for Republicans: Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, John E. Sununu in New Hampshire and, especially, Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina. Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, hammered Dole on Social Security. She responded by exhibiting a blank piece of paper labeled: "Bowles Social Security Plan."

The only losing Republican reformist was Sen. Tim Hutchinson in Arkansas, and he suffered from family values rather than retirement issues. Not all Republicans were steadfast. Jim Talent backed away in Missouri and barely won his Senate seat. South Dakota's Republican candidates in close races -- Gov. Bill Janklow for the House and Rep. John Thune for the Senate -- retreated; Janklow won handily while Thune lost narrowly. Ten-term, 72-year-old Rep. George Gekas of Pennsylvania came out against private accounts; he was the only Republican loser in the nation's four Republican-vs.-Democrat pairings of two incumbents caused by redistricting.

The object lesson came in New Jersey, where neophyte Republican Senate candidate Doug Forrester was pounded for wanting to "privatize" Social Security. He responded by pledging never to touch the system, and then lost badly to old-fashioned liberal Frank Lautenberg.

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt and his House campaign chairman, Rep. Nita Lowey, had publicly declared the 2002 election a "referendum on Social Security." The verdict was delivered Wednesday by the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, which pointed out the futility of "attacking Republicans on Social Security" as a "silver bullet" and losing four straight elections.

Further, the Republican strategist in the Roll Call story is right when he says that the Democrats are becoming the party of 'no.' No to Iraq, no to anti-terror measures, no to Social Security reform, no to tax cuts, no to the line-item veto (which won't help their attempt to paint themselves as more fiscally responsible than the GOP)... no to everything, it seems. On this point, I find myself in agreement with Stan Greenberg, Harold Ickes, and James Carville.

This attack on Republicans over Social Security reform will no doubt have effect in some races. I am sure that Congressman Clay Shaw for example, is concerned. He's in a close race for re-election in a Florida district that probably has more senior citizens than any other in the country. This attack might help in districts like that.

But apart from that, I think that voters generally feel that the Social Security system is going broke (a reasonable view), and that Democrats don't have a plan. In this case, the Democrats are the guy who drove the car into the ditch. Now they're telling voters that it's not really a ditch and they shouldn't trust the fella with the tow truck. Now how well will that go over?

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