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Social Security vulnerability

In 1994, Democrats had been soundly beaten. We lost control of the House for the first time in 42 years and saw eight Senate seats switch to the Republicans.

But Republicans gave us a great gift. Enraptured by the notion that candidate victories implied voter agreement with their policies, Republicans tried to implement the agenda on which they had run. They had the temerity to try to cut Medicare, education and the environment. Democrats rode those issues to resurgence in 1996.In 1994, Democrats had been soundly beaten. We lost control of the House for the first time in 42 years and saw eight Senate seats switch to the Republicans.

But Republicans gave us a great gift. Enraptured by the notion that candidate victories implied voter agreement with their policies, Republicans tried to implement the agenda on which they had run. They had the temerity to try to cut Medicare, education and the environment. Democrats rode those issues to resurgence in 1996.

In the wake of a much closer election in 2004, signs of Republican over-reaching are already abundant. From abandoning any pretense of ethical leadership to endangering national security by scuttling intelligence reform, Republicans are demonstrating they care more about power than principle.

Republican plans to cut Social Security though, could be an even greater gift than the Medicare cuts of ’95.

Of course, they don’t use the word “cuts.” They dress it up as “privatization.”

Democrats rail against that label as if it were a dirty word. It is not. When asked in general terms about allowing people to invest part of their Social Security money privately, most voters support the idea. In September, Annenberg found 56 percent in favor of allowing “workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market. Newsweek’s poll said 55 percent support this proposal.

But while voters may like the idea in principle they abhor it in practice. There is a catch. Privatizing Social Security means cutting benefits. The president appointed a commission to study privatization. It came back with three options. Every one of them cut benefits. Indeed every plan that has ever been devised to do what President Bush wants to do, cuts Social Security benefits.

Two Republican senators admitted in Sunday’s New York Times that the president’s plan will cut Social Security benefits. Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (N.H.) both said the plan must include benefit cuts and tax increases. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) also opined that tax increases and benefit cuts would be required if we are to keep the deficit increase below a trillion dollars.

So now the Social Security cut cat is out of the Republican bag.

Democrats can offer many lines of attack against the president’s proposals. But victory in this battle requires clarity and discipline. Privatization will explode the deficit even further. We will be playing stock market roulette with seniors’ retirement. But benefit cuts are the most potent argument we have and it should be the focus of Democratic attention. The Los Angeles Times poll revealed that just 30 percent of voters would support the Bush plan if it cut the guaranteed benefit.

If Republicans are foolish enough to propose a tax increase along with the benefit cuts, then Democrats should turn the mourning into dancing forthwith, and add that to the bill of indictment.

Some will no doubt argue that the president’s flawed plan is better than no plan at all. The public disagrees. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found only 34 percent backing Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s assertion that benefit cuts are needed to save the program. When voters were offered a choice between leaving the system the way it is with the risk of bankruptcy and the president’s plan with the risk of seniors losing out, the public chose leaving well enough alone by a 14-point margin.

Democrats need to succeed based on our own ideas and our own proposals. But first we must make Republicans pay a heavy political price for attempting to cut Social Security, violating the contract we made with our parents and grandparents.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) this year.