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
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
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
John is a senior research fellow for Social Security at
The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based
public policy research institution.
Distributed naitonally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire.