A Political Landmine Called Social Security

Republican Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, an enthusiastic supporter of Social Security personal accounts, was hit with charges in his most recent campaign that he favors privatization. He won anyway.

“Everyone has finally recognized the program is no longer the third rail” of politics, Sununu says.

It is a sweeping claim from the winner of a statewide campaign in 2002 that previewed some of the debate now unfolding nationally.

With President Bush advocating personal accounts for Social Security along with a cut in guaranteed future benefits for workers under age 55, it also is an assertion that Democrats are eager to put to a test in 2006.

And it is one that many Republicans view nervously.

“It’s a very combustible product,” says Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who was chairman of the GOP House campaign committee in 2002, when Democrats accused numerous Republicans of seeking to privatize the Depression-era program. “My advice to members is to wait and see the details,” he said.

Still, Sununu, 40, is part of a group of Republicans to argue that the public will reward politicians for seeking solutions to Social Security’s impending financial problems.

“Every candidate that I know of that’s been in a campaign where they have stood for the status quo … they’ve lost,” he said in a recent interview.

Karl Rove, Bush’s senior political adviser, sought to reassure GOP lawmakers along the same lines at a private meeting this winter. According to participants in the session, Rove said no Republican has lost a race for re-election in the past six years because of Social Security.

“I’ve been campaigned twice against on this and I am still standing,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a recent interview. “I believe the public is much more mature about this.”

Graham, elected to the Senate in 2002 after four terms in the House, is hoping to find bipartisan cooperation on the issue in a politically divided Senate.

So, too, is Rep. Clay Shaw, a 13th-term lawmaker from Florida whose district is home to large numbers of older people. Frequently atop the Democratic list of Republicans targeted for defeat, Shaw won his closest race in 2000, prevailing by about 600 votes.

He favors personal accounts on top of existing government benefits as part of a plan to extend the program’s solvency, an approach that differs from Bush’s. “Once I explain that to them (voters) I have no problem,” Shaw said.

Republicans regularly point to Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s campaign in 2002 as evidence of the shift on Social Security. Attacked as an advocate of privatization, she held up a blank sheet of paper and told her audiences it represented her rival’s plan to fix the system’s ailing finances.

“Younger voters get it,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., another member of the GOP’s Senate class of 2002.

Public polling says as much, indicating that many believe Americans not yet in middle age think that Social Security will not be able to deliver the promised benefits.

Democrats say Republicans are drawing the wrong conclusions.

In 2002, “the concerns about national security ended up overwhelming the concerns about Social Security,” said Jenny Backus, who worked for the Democratic House campaign committee at the time.

Also, the strongest ammunition on Social Security available to House Democrats that year was a Republican vote on establishing a commission to study the program’s future.

Now, House Democrats have created a Web site -http://www.gopcaughtontape.com/ – that shows individual Republicans’ reaction to Bush’s proposal, compared with their campaign ads on the subject from 2002.

Senate Democrats used a different approach, showing off an online calculator -http://democrats.senate.gov/ss/calc.html

Members of the leadership said it would allow anyone to compare the difference between the benefits they are guaranteed under current law and the amount they would receive under Bush’s alternative.

“The president’s been making it seem to people that privatization makes you money. It loses you money,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who heads the party’s Senate campaign organization.

Asked to respond, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said he had not seen the calculator.

Coleman said he was attacked during his 2002 campaign for favoring privatization. “I countered it by being very clear that I supported personal accounts and opposed privatization,” he said.

It is a distinction Sununu sought to make in 2002, and one Republicans have been told they will have to make successfully in 2006 if they are to be successful.

“We win if the issue is defined as personal accounts. We lose if it is defined as privatization,” pollster David Winston wrote recently in a presentation for Senate Republicans.

Democrats are using the same attack on Bush and Republicans in Congress that Sununu’s 2002 opponent, then-Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, used against him. “My plan is to preserve Social Security and its guaranteed benefit. His plan is to privatize Social Security,” she said.

Sununu countered that Social Security trust funds will be depleted in 35 years, echoing Bush’s current argument. “I’m willing to talk substantively and thoughtfully about important issues like Social Security,” he told his campaign audiences.

He then pivoted politically – as Republicans hope to be able to do this year. “Jeanne Shaheen has no plans, no ideas for reform, no suggestions to help strengthen the system for future generations,” Sununu said as the election neared.

On the Net:

White House background on Social Security: http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/social-security/

© 2005 The Associated Press