Medicare politics eclipse Social Security ' for now

Medicare’s prescription-drug benefit, rising gas prices and the war in Iraq have eclipsed Social Security as an issue that candidates from both parties are debating.

Medicare’s prescription-drug benefit, rising gas prices and the war in Iraq have eclipsed Social Security as an issue that candidates from both parties are debating.

Even though many GOP lawmakers supported President Bush’s push for legislation to privatize the social-insurance retirement program, the public has all but forgotten about the controversial Social Security issue.

“Today, right now, people are very focused on Medicare,” said Eric Massa, a Democrat running for Congress against Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.). “People think Social Security has been solved because it’s not very much in the mind’s eye.”

Ohio Democrat John Cranley, who is running against Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), said, “Medicare Part D is more pressing on a day-to-day basis. In that sense, it is more likely to be mentioned by seniors.”

Despite the issue’s lack of resonance today, Democratic strategists are waiting until Medicare’s May 15 deadline passes to ratchet up attacks on GOP incumbents. Democratic candidates have ripped Republican incumbents for supporting private accounts and used the issue in direct-mail pitches to potential contributors.

“What Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats did for Americans with Social Security, George W. Bush is trying to undo,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote in a fundraising pitch. “I know as a fellow Democrat you are as outraged as I am about President Bush’s attempt to rip apart the safety net of Social Security with his scheme of privatization.”

Massa said the country’s ailing Social Security system is still a major issue for him. He signed a pledge earlier this year to oppose privatizing Social Security and put forth his own ideas to shore up the program’s finances by raising the retirement age for younger workers, raising the current cap on income that is taxed by Social Security and exempting the first 10 percent of all income from payroll taxes.

Social Security’s resonance as a political issue could “change in a single news cycle,” he said.

But in a Fox News poll conducted last week, a small percentage of voters from both parties ranked Social Security as an important issue.

Unlike Medicare, Social Security’s financing problems won’t begin for 11 years. The Medicare and Social Security trustees’ reports released last week projected that, without any changes to the program, Social Security would pay full benefits through 2040. But in 2017, the program will take in less revenue than it pays out.

Social Security has proved a winning issue for Democrats. In 1982, Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) regained 26 Democratic seats, in part by hammering Republican proposals to slash Social Security benefits.

Several days before the election, Democrats discovered a GOP memo spelling out a plan to privatize Social Security and leaked the memo to the media. Despite winning a more vigorous Democratic majority, a bipartisan commission led by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan proposed a plan, accepted by President Reagan and O’Neill, to trim benefits, raise taxes and increase the retirement age to keep the program solvent.

Sixteen years later, in a much better economic environment, President Clinton stopped Republicans from cutting taxes by arguing to “save Social Security first.”

But Democrats believe they will be more effective if they hold their fire and hammer away on Medicare first. 

“What’s going on this cycle is they actually tried implementing a plan. It’s gone from an abstract thought to a tangible act, and it will haunt Republicans in November,” said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Rhode Island Democratic Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse attacked Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) for suggesting that indexing Social Security benefits to changes in prices rather than wages — which in theory would slow the growth of benefits and save money — would be a component of a major reform package.

Singer indicated that Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), the Senate GOP conference chairman, and Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) still could be hurt by their support of Bush’s plan.

“It’s pretty difficult to attack anyone who raised some ideas when you talk about a problem but don’t offer any ideas,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). “It’s tough to bring up stuff that people are not even talking about.”

Several Democratic challengers, including Joe Courtney in Connecticut, Brad Ellsworth in Indiana, Cranley and Massa, regularly attack GOP privatization efforts in their stump speeches.

Cranley said he is planning a major event to pledge not to privatize Social Security.

“We’re in a world right now that is more anxiety-ridden,” Cranley said. “This idea that Republicans talk about even in general terms scares people. We don’t need to be driving more anxiety into seniors right now.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) featured a section on its website, “Caught on Tape,” to highlight Republicans who said they were in favor of or open to privatizing Social Security.