Democrats Bet on the Politics of Social Security

Democrats hope the GOP's privatization fixation will become a cutting issue in 2010

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Happy birthday to Social Security, which turns 75 today. Over the last few days, Democrats have keyed on the anniversary in their latest attempt to reframe the battle for control of Congress, highlighting the desire on the part of a number of Republicans to retire or revamp the venerable, beloved program in favor of something privatized.

It's not hard to see why Democrats have turned their messaging focus to Social Security. On one hand the economic news remains dismal, President Obama's approval ratings keep sliding, signs point to a big November for the GOP.

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On the other hand, the Republicans seem so determined to put the Bush years behind them that they've managed a sort of policy amnesia where they forget that we had this argument nationally a short half-dozen years ago. President Bush's major domestic initiative at the start of his second term, remember, was privatizing Social Security and the GOP lost the argument badly.

Nevertheless, a figure buried in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week should send chills down Democrats' spines. Asked which party would do a better job dealing with Social Security, Americans favored the Democrats by 30-26. That four point margin is smaller than at any time going back at least as far as November, 1994 when the gap was five points in the Democrats' favor. This is typically an issue the Democrats own: In October 2006, for example, Democrats had a 28 point edge (48-20). And while the Republican figure has remained fairly constant, in the low-to-mid 20s, the Democrats' number has cratered. They usually reside in the high 30s to mid 40s, but are down to 30 percent. Why? They've lost credibility on spending and deficit issues. A poll released by Democracy Corps this week found that "it is the threat to Social Security that leads many voters to prioritize deficit reductions. ... As Social Security celebrates its 75th anniversary this week in the midst of this troubled economy, voters across the political divide want these programs defended."

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So there's an added urgency and challenge for Democrats to regain their traditional upper hand on the issue, and use it to stem the Republican tide. And GOP voters, powered by the purity-driven Tea Party movement, seem willing to cooperate. You have House Budget Committee chairman-in-waiting Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin GOPer who favors partial privatization. You have incumbents and quasi-incumbents like Reps. John Boozman of Arkansas (favored to beat Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln) and Roy Blunt of Missouri (trying to succeed retiring Sen. Kit Bond) and Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa who lined up behind Bush's proposal before it crashed and burned.

And then there are the glassy-eyed true believers, the Tea Party favorites like Nevada's Sharron "phase Medicare and Social Security out" Angle (locked in mortal combat with Harry Reid). Or Rand Paul of Kentucky (aiming to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning), who has said Social Security is a "ponzi scheme," and that it's a "backdoor way of having government ownership and direction of private companies." The most recent entrant is Ken Buck, the GOP nominee to take on Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. Buck has questioned Social Security's constitutionality and described it as "horrible policy", adding that "the private sector runs programs like that far better." Which displays a dizzying ignorance of the reason we have Social Security. The program wasn't invented as a big government power grab, rather it was created in light of private sector failure. If the private sector had been efficiently providing for retirement there would have been no need for the program.

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But while conservatives' hunger for Social Security privatization may be renewed, there's little reason to believe that the Great Recession and tales of Wall Street excess and abuse have inspired any such feelings in the general public. A poll released this week by the AARP found that 79 percent of Americans want Social Security to continue as a guaranteed benefit program, while a mere 19 percent would like it to be "more like an investment account with people taking the risk of possible investment losses for the possibility of greater returns." Overall, more than 9 in 10 adults view Social Security as an important program, the poll found, and 63 percent view it as one of the "very most important" programs--figures that have remained constant for 25 years.

And even the fringiest of the GOP fringe candidates are keenly aware of the gap that exists between them and the main stream of political thought on Social Security. That's why Angle recently started running ads pledging to "save" Social Security, an apparent 180 degree reversal from her previous comments. Don't be fooled.

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