By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 09/21/06 12:00 AM EDT
The issues being debated this year in several competitive congressional districts are strikingly similar to the issues that defined the midterm elections of 1982, when the economy helped nationalize the contest pitting President Reagan against then-House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.).
Then, as now, Democrats are charging that Republicans would privatize Social Security if they control the House and Senate in the new Congress. Democrats have seized on remarks that President Bush made to The Wall Street Journal earlier this month that he wanted to “revisit Social Security reform next year when he ‘will be able to drain the politics out of the issue.’”
Meanwhile, Republicans have argued that Democrats would hike taxes, pointing to Rep. Charlie Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) comments to Bloomberg News yesterday that he “‘cannot think of one’ of Bush’s first-term tax cuts that merit renewal.”
In 1982, jobs, Social Security, and fairness defined the debate in the midterm election, said Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” who at the time was a top aide to O’Neill.
“Democrats kept hitting the same three issues,” Matthews said about the campaign, and they appear to be doing the same today.
The only thing new about recent Democratic attacks is that they target Republicans in open seat races where candidates typically don’t have track records on national issues, such as whether or how to reform Social Security.
In Iowa’s first congressional district, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is nearing the end of a two-week advertising campaign – which could cost up to $100,000 – saying that Republican candidate Mike Whalen wants to privatize Social Security because he was affiliated with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank, and publicly supported Bush’s efforts to reform Social Security.
Whalen’s opponent, Democrat Bruce Braley, spent yesterday at a senior center and two community centers talking with voters about his support of Social Security throughout Iowa’s 1st congressional district.
In Illinois’ 6th congressional district, Democrats attacked state Sen. Peter Roskam (R) for his answers to questionnaires by two pressure groups, the AARP and the National Taxpayers Union.
In the NTU’s questionnaire, Roskam said he would “work and vote for Social Security Choice that will allow younger workers to have the choice of investing much of their Social Security taxes in regulated individual retirement accounts.”
In his AARP questionnaire, Roskam wrote that Social Security “must be protected” and that he does not favor increasing taxes, reducing benefits, raising the retirement age or privatizing the system.
A direct mail piece sent by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) says that, “In Congress, Peter Roskam will protect Social Security for Illinois retirees. He opposes any plans that touch even a dime of benefits for seniors and those nearing retirement.”
Roskam told The Hill he opposes any measures that would add private savings accounts or slice up the current program to create a private account.
“I think there has yet to be a consensus that there is a looming crisis with Social Security. At that point, you’d have to have the next conversation,” Roskam said, adding that he supports a measure proposed by DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) that would allow companies to automatically enroll employees in 401(k) plans.
As Democrats slam Republicans on Social Security, Republicans are hammering Democrats on taxes in districts in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana and Pennsylvania, said Carl Forti, the NRCC’s spokesman.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the NRCC and GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach have run advertisements panning Democrat Lois Murphy’s record on taxes. Gerlach’s ad alleged that if Murphy were elected the average Pennsylvania family would see their taxes rise by $2,000 a year. The NRCC ad suggests that Murphy opposes tax credits for middle-class families.
“Lois Murphy supports every single tax cut that the NRCC mentions in its ad. Either they’re intentionally lying or they need a new research department,” said Amy Bonitatibus, Murphy’s spokeswoman.
Social Security and taxes have remained salient issues in elections since 1982, notably in 1998 when President Clinton staved off GOP efforts to cut taxes until Congress “saved Social Security first.”
But, in 1982, luck played a role in helping Democrats. Four days before the election, a Republican fundraising letter fell into Democratic hands. The letter highlighted Republicans’ goals of making Social Security voluntary.
Matthews said O’Neill challenged Reagan to denounce the letter, and that reporters questioned the president about the letter while he was campaigning in Wyoming. The weekend before the election, O’Neill raised the issue again at a senior center in Cambridge, Mass. The night before election, the issue was the top story on a national TV-news program.
That Tuesday evening, Democrats had regained 26 House seats.