November 11, 2002

November 11, 2002 | Commentary on Social Security

ED111102:  Social Security Reform: It's Alive

Opponents of Social Security reform must feel like they're stuck in a bad horror film. Every time they think they've killed off personal retirement accounts, the campaign to create the accounts comes back, stronger than ever.

The 2002 election was no exception. Social Security reform survived Republicans who tried to avoid the subject, Democrats who tried to scare people away, and journalists who pronounced its demise almost daily. In fact, candidates who openly supported reform -- as opposed to those who might support it now but dared not speak its name on the hustings -- fared better than those who openly opposed it.

Come January, the Senate will welcome several newcomers: John Sununu in New Hampshire, Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Lindsay Graham in South Carolina, Norman Coleman in Minnesota, Saxby Chambliss in Georgia and John Cornyn in Texas. All supported personal retirement accounts during their campaigns.

House incumbents, such as West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, Minnesota's John Kline, and Kentucky's Anne Northup -- all friends of reform -- survived tough challenges to win. And two politicians who supported reform previously in the House of Representatives -- ex-Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Rep. Bob Ehrlich of Maryland -- are governors-elect today even though their political opponents tried to use the issue against them in their campaigns.

Yes, it was ugly at times. Candidates and special-interest groups spent millions trying to depict Social Security reform as a cruel, pitiless monster. TV commercials showed hands ripping up Social Security cards while a solemn voice warned that personal retirement accounts would destroy Social Security and cut benefits. Organized labor and other groups urged candidates to sign pledges promising not to pursue reform.

But as former Clinton advisers Paul Begala and James Carville have said, you can't beat something with nothing. Dole raised this point repeatedly on the campaign trail. She would hold up a blank sheet of paper and say of her opponent, "This is Erskine Bowles' plan to save Social Security." It was a telling point in the debate over a system that, absent major overhaul, faces deficits in less than 15 years.

Opponents sought to force a debate over the word "privatization," which, they said, "proved" that various candidates wanted to destroy Social Security. Candidates such as Indiana's Chris Chocola endured merciless attacks for having dared to utter the "P-word" favorably. Yet, almost invariably, the attacks didn't work. Chocola will settle into his newly won House seat this January.

And it wasn't just Republicans who supported reform, or only Democrats who opposed it. In Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. George Gekas disavowed his previous support for personal accounts, signed the pledge to oppose them, and lost. In Texas, where Republicans romped, Rep. Charles Stenholm, a Democrat who has consistently supported Social Security reform, held his position and won.

The key was to have a position and stick to it. In 2000, House Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Clay Shaw nearly lost his seat to a Democrat who slammed him on Social Security. He spent the next two years creating a plan to preserve the system with personal retirement accounts, then met those attacks head-on and won with 60 percent of the vote.

In West Virginia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito faced a rich lawyer who spent more than $7 million of his own money against her and based much of his campaign on charges that she would "privatize" Social Security and cut benefits. Capito vowed to oppose any measure that would cut benefits but said she would consider personal accounts as one way to solve the coming financial crisis. Her district gave her 60 percent of the vote, making her the first Republican re-elected to Congress from West Virginia in more than 40 years.

Several members of the next Senate, including Chambliss, Cornyn, Coleman, Graham and James Inhofe of Oklahoma (who was re-elected), as well as incoming House freshmen John Kline of Minnesota and Tom Feeney of Florida, even signed a pledge to support reform.

In short, despite claims by some Democrats that domestic issues didn't gain traction in 2002, Social Security reform proved to be a winner. Those who signed on benefited; those who didn't lost credibility when they offered no alternative.

Those who confronted the problem honestly and told their constituents something would have to be done were rewarded for their candor and their leadership. Let's hope it translates now into action.

David C. John is a senior research fellow for Social Security at The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institution.

About the Author

David C. John Senior Research Fellow in Retirement Security and Financial Institutions
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Distributed naitonally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire.