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Jewish World Review August 21, 2002 / 13 Elul, 5762

Michael Barone

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Too clever by half



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The Republicans have come up with a clever way to use the Social Security issue. Unfortunately for them, it is, as the British used to say, too clever by half.

Of course it's no secret that Democrats have been trying to use Social Security against the Republicans. From coast to coast they have been running ads accusing Republicans of being for "privatization" of Social Security. They use the imprecise word "privatization" to refer to proposals to allow workers to channel part of their Social Security taxes to individual investment accounts.

It's not clear that this is as effective as Democrats think. Despite the drop in the stock market, polls still show solid majorities of voters in favor of allowing individual investment accounts in Social Security. The term "privatization" does less well in polls–which is why the Democrats use it; to describe precisely what they are attacking would cost them votes.

Despite the favorable polls, many Republicans are deathly afraid of being attacked on Social Security. They know that the Social Security issue has worked for the Democrats in the past. They are not confident that individual investment accounts will work for them now, and they are pretty sure that "privatization" will work against them. This is an example of how past political experience can trump present political opportunity. It is also an incidental result of the voters' relative lack of interest in politics and politicians. Follow members of Congress or candidates for Congress around on the campaign trail for a few days, and you will find that they speak almost entirely to captive audiences. Who, after all, is going to get into his car to go listen to a House candidate speak? The captive audiences mostly consist of schoolchildren and senior citizens. The children don't ask about much of anything. The seniors always ask about Social Security. Politicians' schedules thus lead them to overestimate the number of voters who are terrified that they will lose their Social Security benefits and to underestimate the number of under-50 voters who are worried, justifiably, that Social Security will not be a good deal for them.

Some Republicans respond to the issue by making the positive case for individual investment accounts. Others swear they are against "privatization." And now a few, cleverly, are trying to turn the Democrats' words against them.

One such is Rep. John Thune, running against Sen. Tim Johnson in South Dakota. Last week Thune's campaign started running a Social Security spot against Johnson.

    Announcer: "It's in the Congressional Record." Text on the screen: "RAIDING SOCIAL SECURITY."

    Announcer: "Tim Johnson voted seven times to raid $300 billion dollars from Social Security; five times against a new law to stop politicians from raiding the trust fund." Text on the screen: "Voted 5 times against stopping politicians from raiding the Trust Fund."

    Announcer: "Johnson supports a Social Security privatization plan that lets the federal government invest Social Security in the stock market." Text on the screen: "Supports letting the federal government invest Social Security in the stock market."

    Announcer: "John Thune opposes letting the federal government invest Social Security in the stock market; He voted five times to stop politicians from raiding the trust fund. John Thune: guaranteeing Social Security; fighting higher taxes."

Johnson immediately cried dirty pool. No way I am for "privatization," he said. But as the ad points out, Johnson did speak out for allowing the federal government to invest Social Security funds in the stock market in the 1990s–a variant of a policy rolled out by the Clinton administration in 1999. Johnson says now that his 1990s statements were "the product of thinking out loud" and that he never wrote or supported a bill for "Social Security privatization." But of course politicians can expect to be held responsible for "thinking out loud," particularly when they have talked favorably about a policy–government investment in the stock market–that doesn't fare as well in the polls as, say, individual investment accounts. And "privatization" is just as precise–or, rather, imprecise–a description of government investment in the stock market as it is of individual investment accounts.

A similar drama is being played out in North Dakota. Republican Rick Clayburgh, running against Rep. Earl Pomeroy, is accusing Pomeroy of supporting "privatization," that is, government investment of Social Security funds in the stock market. Pomeroy, like Johnson, is yelling foul. Yet he did support the proposal, and if "privatization" is a fair description of allowing individual investment accounts in Social Security, why isn't it a fair description of government investment of Social Security funds in the stock market?

Pretty clever, those Republicans.

And they seem likely to use this line elsewhere. These Dakota races are a very high priority for national Republicans. They think South Dakota, a state George W. Bush carried by 60 percent to 38 percent, is one of their two best prospects for picking up a Senate seat. And they think that North Dakota, which Bush carried 61 percent to 33 percent, is one of their better prospects for picking up a House seat; it's "one of the 10 most competitive ... House races in the country," Speaker Dennis Hastert said last week. So you can expect that a lot of Republicans will be attacking Democrats for favoring "privatization" of Social Security. This will nicely muddle the issue, Republican strategists most likely think, and will tend to eliminate the Democrats' advantage.

But is it too clever by half? Once Republicans have attacked one form of "privatization," they may feel bound to oppose all forms of "privatization." Clayburgh, for one, says he will vote against any form of "privatization." So Republican attempts to neutralize the Social Security issue in the short run may in the long run make it difficult or impossible for Bush to persuade Congress to pass–presumably after the 2004 election–an individual investment account plan. Bush campaigned forthrightly and clearly in 2000 for individual investment accounts–it was one of his major issues in the campaign–and won. But if he has trouble winning over the votes of a Republican from a constituency that he carried 61 percent to 33 percent, he is going to be hard put to deliver on his pledge.

To which the likely response of Republican strategists is probably the classic politician's dodge: "You have to win the election first." But Bush in 2000 knew that how you win the election is just as important. He took risks on the Social Security issue because he wanted not just to win but also to change national policy. Now on issue after issue–steel imports, the farm bill–Bush has evidently decided that the close partisan balance in Congress requires him to "win the election first." Should Social Security be added to the list? If so, a re-elected Bush with a Republican Congress may find that his party's strategists have been too clever by half.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©2002, Michael Barone