Congressional Democratic incumbents are faced with a peculiar predicament in 2010. A highly publicized memo, leaked to and published in Politico on August 19th, urged incumbent Democrats to avoid talking about their signature legislative accomplishment of the 111th Congress, namely health care reform. In the search for new issues to run on, Democratic incumbents and challengers have an attractive alternative in the “extreme positions” that the new wave of GOP nominees have adopted. A tried and tested winner for Democrats is the privatization of Social Security.
Harry Reid’s campaign against Tea Party favorite and GOP nominee for Senate from Nevada, Sharron Angle, has been particularly effective in portraying her as dangerously hostile to social programs. Reid’s campaign has released a series of ads containing a litany of disconcerting statements that Angle made, but one that has received a lot of traction in that race is Angle’s position on Social Security reform (if you consider “phasing out” a reform). Ads that highlight her position have arguably leveled that playing field from an uphill battle for Reid to a tossup today.
Democratic campaign committees have taken notice. The DCCC launched an ad this week against Wisconsin congressional candidate Sean Duffy, accusing him of wanting to “gamble” Social Security benefits on the stock market. The DSCC aired a similar ad attacking Pennsylvania Senate candidate Pat Toomey. Joe Miller, Alaska’s Tea Party-supported, insurgent GOP nominee for the Senate, is the latest to have to answer some tough questions on Social Security reform from CBS’ Bob Schieffer on Face The Nation.
A Bloomberg Poll conducted by Selzer & Co. taken March 19th to 22nd, 2010, showed that 59 percent of respondents disagreed, to varying degrees, with the statement “Government-run programs such as Social Security and Medicare should be privatized.” An interesting compilation of data measuring the public mood on Social Security from Pollingreport.com shows that the last time privatization proposals received a weak positive rating was an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from December, 2004. All other polling on this issue since then suggests that Democrats have an issue that has gone against Republicans since President Bush’s attempt at Social Security reform in 2005. It can be a winning issue today, if the item is employed carefully, not gratuitously, and in districts with seniors sensitive to privatization.
Eventually, some alternative solutions will have to be committed to, by one or both parties. If Social Security is to be a major issue today, Democrats will eventually have to propose an alternative platform to privatization. That proposal can only help the Democratic incumbent. Republicans have not made Social Security’s insolvency a leading issue because the GOP does not have a uniform position on the issue. Launching a Democratic reform proposal would highlight the Republican’s lack of legislative solutions to the problem, and would cement the impression in voter’s minds that their default position was, in fact, privatization.
Some solutions to the problem of Social Security’s solvency that are being floated, but not actively promoted by congressional leadership at this time, include means testing recipients so that Social Security benefits are withheld from those that can afford to live without those funds. Other solutions include raising the eligibility age or the payroll tax to increase reserve funds.
All of these solutions are suboptimal, most are opposed by members of both parties (Speaker Pelosi and 12 other congressional candidates have signed a pledge to protect Social Security from both benefit cuts and privatization) and none facilitate permanent solvency.
There is fairly universal recognition that Social Security’s solvency is in perpetual jeopardy. A CNN poll from August 6th to the 29th, 2010, found that 60 percent of individuals not collecting Social Security benefits believe the program will be defunct before they are ever able to take advantage of it. CNN’s polling director, Keating Holland, recently confirmed that while the public has been aware of Social Security’s troubles since the 1980s, that number of people who share that opinion has never been so high. With finesse, this issue can be a winner for congressional Democrats.
There is, however, one caveat to this strategy. By hoisting Social Security reform back onto the domestic stage as a priority, Democrats may open themselves up to potentially manufacturing a mandate for those reforms. If Tea Party-backed candidates win the their elections (as Angle, Toomey and Duffy certainly could), then radical reform of the unsustainable Social Security system will be entertained by more than just Tea Party candidates. If Republicans take the House, Social Security reform will not be a high priority (GOP leadership has repeatedly stressed rollback of the 111th Congress’ accomplishments as their top priority) but, as insolvency looms, it will certainly become one. 2005’s failure will be a distant memory for Congressional Republican leadership by then, but the successes of 2010 will be quite fresh.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at n