Republicans call for change in tactics on Social Security reform

To pass Social Security reform this year, top Republican strategists say, President Bush and the GOP-led Congress must redirect the debate by stressing that their plan includes a crucial safety-net protection.

For months, Democrats and AARP have hammered Bush and congressional Republicans on the “risky gamble” of setting up personal accounts in the Social Security system. Frustrated Republicans have acknowledged that the Democrats’ political blows have connected.

Fifty-six percent of Americans oppose Bush’s Social Security plan, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll.

But Republicans are not ready to throw in the towel. They say the key to victory is to emphasize repeatedly that reform legislation would provide current and future Social Security beneficiaries with a guarantee that they will not collect a penny less than the present system allows.

That guarantee, which is included in certain Social Security reform bills, could be used as an effective rebuttal to comparisons that liken private accounts to playing the slots, GOP officials say.

“It would take away one of the [Democratic] arguments,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), while former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said a guarantee “would reassure seniors and the nearly retired.”

Stephen Moore, president of the Free Enterprise Fund, said the safety net would ensure that “Grandma and Grandpa don’t get thrown out of their home” if their investments go sour.

Democratic resistance to Bush’s approach to restructuring Social Security basically revolves around two issues: cost and risk.

Republican proponents of revamping the popular entitlement program say they can win the cost argument but maintain that it is essential to take risk off the table because they cannot fend off attacks on both fronts simultaneously.

Administration officials have reportedly expressed reservations about a guaranteed benefit, saying it would reward bad investment choices. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said that could be resolved in the Republican bill by stipulating investment parameters so that people could not aggressively game the system.

Some reform proponents, while pleased that Bush has spent political capital on Social Security, are exasperated that the president and Hill Republicans are losing what they believe is a winnable public-policy debate.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said last week on C-SPAN that the mainstream media are against the Republican Social Security reform agenda, adding that the media constantly mischaracterize the GOP’s solutions.

But others say the problem rests with the White House’s public-relations efforts.

“The message has been wrong,” said Peter Ferrara, senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation. “The message has been a political loser.”

Ferrara is the author of legislation introduced by Ryan and Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) that would provide Social Security recipients with a guaranteed benefit. He said the public “won’t need a guarantee” because the market will outperform the current system but added that Republicans “should take political advantage” of the guarantee.

Ferrara said the White House is too focused on the deficit and the short-term costs of setting up private accounts.

A White House spokesperson said that the president wants to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis and noted that he has released principles for reform.

The president has been highlighting how Social Security is headed for bankruptcy and will be paying out more than it takes in by 2018, but some said that argument has gathered little momentum.

Moore said the administration needs to “stop talking about solvency and talk about ownership. … 2018 seems to be very distant in the future to a lot of people.”
Gingrich echoed Moore’s contention: “If I tell you that in 11 years you’re going to need a new roof, you’re probably going to say, ‘OK, let’s talk in 10 and a half years.”

In discussing the need for reform, Bush has stressed that Social Security will not change for people 55 and older. He has also said private accounts would be voluntary and allow people to pass on savings to their children. Bush, however, has not talked about a guaranteed benefit for those participating in private accounts.

Armey, who infuriated House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and the White House for publicly opposing the Medicare drug bill, said Bush has done a good job selling Social Security reform. He added that his differences with Hastert and the White House are “water under the bridge.”

The cost of Social Security should be dealt with in a long-term context, Republicans said. They point to the finding of the Social Security chief actuary — an independent voice in the government — that shows that the Ryan bill “would be expected to be solvent and to meet its benefit obligations throughout the long-range period 2003 through 2077 and beyond.”

Hastert, Gingrich, and Armey all have praised the Ryan-Sununu bill.

One of the more difficult problems facing Republicans is to craft a simple and clear message to solve an extremely complicated program.

Along those lines, the argument that some say could be advanced by Republicans this spring is that Social Security reform is voluntary, involves no risk for individuals and saves the government money over 75 years.

Another part of the strategy will be to post calculators on Republican websites that will allow people to compute the lifetime savings with and without the creation of personal accounts.

“Those are the numbers we need to drill into people’s heads,” Norquist said.

Congressional Democrats are unlikely to be swayed. While Bush is demanding that private accounts be set up, Democrats have signaled they will balk at accounts that are funded through payroll taxes. Because of that, Republicans are crafting their political strategy with an eye toward an exit strategy and the 2006 elections.

Norquist said, “This is like the civil-rights movement. [Social Security reform] will happen. Whether it’s this year or after we pick up more seats in the next election, it’ll happen.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) doesn’t see it that way, however. Grassley told The Hill yesterday that if a Social Security bill doesn’t happen this year, it won’t happen for at least eight years.

Ferrara said Republican policymakers need to make the public persuade Congress to act, not the other way around. If a worker-friendly plan is crafted that doesn’t raise the $90,000 Social Security tax cap and guarantees benefits, voters will apply pressure on their lawmakers.

Norquist agreed: “We need a tsunami of young people to demand Social Security reform.”

While members of Congress have drawn their lines in the sand, Americans are not nearly as entrenched. In a memo delivered to the National Republican Congressional Committee, GOP pollsters said many people “are easily swayed back and forth in their [Social Security] views based on different messages. There were clear indications that the electorate is very susceptible to propaganda with regard to this issue.”

GOP operatives contend that the momentum that has eluded Bush will mount when Republican lawmakers coalesce around a bill. Once that happens, industry groups friendly with the administration will pour millions of dollars into advocacy efforts to pass the measure.

But some are getting impatient.

“We need a bill, no doubt about it,” Moore said. “It’s time to come out with a plan that is tangible and understandable.”