Social Security Issues Rattling Races for Congress
MISHAWAKA, Ind. — No other issue is generating more scrambling in this year's Congressional elections than Social Security and what Democrats assert is the looming threat of privatization. Consider the House race in this slice of northern Indiana, where the Republican candidate, Chris Chocola, issued a solemn warning recently to the local Rotarians meeting at Honkers Restaurant.
The Democrats are plotting to "scare seniors," Mr. Chocola, a 40-year-old businessman, told the hushed breakfast crowd. He read from an intercepted e-mail message — circulated far and wide by top Republicans in Washington — that features one Democratic aide chortling to another that "bashing Republicans" on Social Security "is sooo fun." Mr. Chocola concluded, "This is everything bad about politics, part of the reason people are so cynical."
Around the country, Republicans are launching similar pre-emptive strikes, with remarkable intensity for this early in the campaign, against the attacks they know are coming. Democrats have reassumed, with gusto and more edge than they have shown in years, their favorite role in a midterm election: The Guardians of Social Security.
They say that Republicans like Mr. Chocola are committed to creating private investment accounts in Social Security that will lead, almost inevitably, to cuts in benefits and an unraveling of the traditional system. Democrats say Republicans just do not want to talk about it in an election year, when the House and Senate are up for grabs and the votes of older Americans loom large.
"The Republican effort to walk away from privatization is something we cannot let them do," said Representative Martin Frost, the Texas Democrat who heads his party's caucus in the House. "They've been pushing it for years now and all of a sudden they want to disavow it."
It is a debate largely touched off by the Bush administration's proposal to allow people to divert part of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts. When he unveiled his idea in the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush was considered to have boldly — or brashly — grasped the legendary third rail of politics and lived to tell of it. Congressional Republicans are far more wary.
Indeed, Mr. Bush is trying to give his fellow Republicans some air cover, providing a videotape for use in town hall meetings in which he declares: "I'm committed to modernization that will not change Social Security benefits for retirees or near-retirees. No changes, no reductions, no way."
Both parties are keenly aware of one demographic reality: Younger people, pollsters say, tend to like the idea of private accounts. For voters under 40, "having money in their own account, that they get to keep, and pass on to their heirs, sounds a lot less risky than trusting that the government will be able to fund the program in 30 years," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster.
But older Americans tend to be more cautious, fearing the risks and costs of even a partly privatized system. And it is a law of politics that what older Americans think matters more — certainly in a midterm election, where they cast a disproportionate share of the vote. Americans 60 and older accounted for 28 percent of the vote nationally in the 1998 midterm election; they accounted for 41 percent in Pennsylvania.
"Younger people may have an opinion on Social Security; older people actually vote on Social Security — and that's a big difference," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster.
Beyond the question of private accounts, the politics of Social Security is inextricably bound up with the struggle over the budget, with Democrats accusing Republicans of squandering the surplus and raiding the Social Security trust funds.
Even by the standards of past Social Security battles, this year's is expected to be nasty, brutish and long. Republican Congressional strategists, alarmed at the potential political cost of the administration's proposal, have devoted themselves to minimizing its impact and inoculating their candidates from Democratic attacks. They say the long-term health of Social Security and the merits of private accounts needs a sober debate, but not in the heat of an election.
Some Republican consultants are advising candidates to avoid the P-word; once a common shorthand, privatization has become the policy idea that dare not speak its name in some Republican circles. "Democrat attempts to label the G.O.P. position on Social Security as favoring `privatization' presents a serious threat," declares one recent Republican memorandum circulated on Capitol Hill. "G.O.P. members and candidates must fight back against this label."
Mr. Chocola, who is running for a newly drawn seat left open by the retirement of Representative Tim Roemer, a Democrat, describes his position on private accounts like this: "I support our president in making sure that 20-year-olds find a way to get Social Security — and one of those ways is personal savings accounts. I support the concept of personal savings accounts."
But two years ago, when he ran against Mr. Roemer, Mr. Chocola was quoted in an editorial board meeting with The Elkhart Truth as declaring that not only did he support the Bush plan, but, "Eventually I'd like to see the entire system privatized." That quotation quickly showed up in one of Mr. Roemer's television commercials, and is likely to be raised again; Mr. Chocola said he was "misrepresented."
Now, like many other Republican candidates this year, he is careful to list three principles for any revamping of Social Security: No benefit cuts, no rise in the retirement age and no increase in the payroll tax.
Democrats are busily trying to force a debate and vote on the various plans advanced by Republicans in recent years for creating private accounts in Social Security, confident that the devil is in the details. For example, Democrats note, the transitional costs of creating private accounts will be immense — requiring benefit cuts or major new revenue to make up the shortfall.
"Current retirees — who come to this question strongly inclined to see Social Security as a system that is NOT broken and should NOT be messed with — are extremely concerned about the possibility that privatization could prematurely deplete the Social Security trust fund," a memorandum produced by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. reported.
Mr. Chocola's Democratic opponent, Jill Long Thompson, who previously served in the House from another Indiana district and was an under secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration, has already broadcast advertisements in her primary campaign highlighting the risks of private accounts.
"I grew up on our family farm in Northern Indiana," she said in one commercial. "And, despite years of hard work, we almost lost it during the recession of the 1980's. That's why I feel so strongly about protecting Social Security from risky proposals that jeopardize benefits. And, with thousands losing their life savings at Enron, its clear we need reform to protect working people's pensions."
In an interview, she did not engage Mr. Chocola directly on the Social Security issue. But when asked about accusations that Democrats were simply trying to "scare seniors," she replied, "Read his quote."
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