Carville memo on Social Security angers Dems

Congressional Democrats have no short-term plans to reveal their hand on Social Security reform and are furious that top Democratic strategists have recommended the need to shift strategy as Republican leaders openly doubt the chances of passing a bill this year.

After The Hill last week reported on a closely held document crafted by Finance Committee Democrats, Senate aides disputed the characterization that the white paper is an alternative plan to President Bush’s Social Security reform proposal. Others maintain that the document, titled “Savings Options,” is an early indication of what Democrats are considering as Bush continues to push private accounts in Social Security.

Senate and House Democrats are still steaming over a memo written last month by Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg. The memo urged Democrats to come up with their own Social Security plan, claiming that Democrats had not gained traction in recent polls despite public skepticism about Bush’s proposal.

The language in the Carville-Greenberg memo was frank: “Why has the public not taken their anger out on congressional Republicans and the president? We think the answer lies with voters’ deeper feelings about the Democrats who appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose.”

Al From and Bruce Reed, leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council, also have called on Democrats to craft a vision outside of opposing GOP ideas.

The Carville-Greenberg memo infuriated Democrats on Capitol Hill.

“They’re all wrong,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “Republicans are fleeing the president’s plan.”

A House Democratic leadership staffer said, “We’re in a good position.” The staffer pointed to a recent USA Today headline on Bush’s travels around the country to sell his Social Security plan: “30 days, 100-plus events, scoreless.”

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) recently said that a vote on Social Security reform might not happen until next year.

Democrats stressed that the Carville-Greenberg memo has not affected their game plan on Social Security.

The House aide said vexed Democrats conveyed their displeasure to Carville and Greenberg. An official with Democracy Corps, which sent out the Carville-Greenberg memo, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), dismissed any assertion that Democrats are shifting strategy, adding that Democrats will not reveal any alternative plan on retirement savings or Social Security until private accounts are taken off the table.

Asked about the Carville-Greenberg memo, Manley said Democrats “are not spending any time thinking about that. … While we may disagree on tactics, everyone agrees that the more Americans hear about [the president’s plan], the less they like it.”

The “Savings Options” document crafted by Finance Committee Democrats does not call for making any changes to Social Security and instead seeks modifications in the law that would encourage Americans to save more through other retirement mechanisms.

Manley said last week that Reid’s office had not seen or signed off on the document, adding that suggestions that Democrats will not deal with the solvency of Social Security are inaccurate.

The leak of the document has left some Democrats questioning the role of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, on Social Security. Many Democrats are watching Baucus’s every step on Social Security, after he played an integral part in passing the 2003 Medicare drug bill.

Jim Messina, Baucus’s chief of staff, sent an e-mail to Democrats last week seeking to reassure them. Messina criticized The Hill’s March 30 article and explained the “Savings Options” document. Messina said “the piece of paper being referred to was a short list of options collected by finance committee staff from various offices. Finance committee staff compiled this list in an effort to help members understand wall streets [sic] views on various ideas. All of this is outside social security. Senate Democrats are strong in their unity on opposing plans to privatize social security.”

House Democrats say they will have an alternative plan, but the timing of a proposal’s release is unclear. They also have not made firm decisions on whether it will call for a revamp of Social Security.

Proposing changes to the popular entitlement program would attract controversy. Considering the politically difficult decisions on such issues as raising the $90,000 cap on Social Security taxes, cutting benefits and lifting the entitlement’s retirement age, it will be an enormous challenge to get Democrats behind one plan.

Over the past several months, Republicans have struggled to coalesce behind a proposal while bickering over the details of various policy options.