Memo to GOP: You're Blowing It On Social Security Reform

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - In the face of a Democratic election year offensive targeting Republicans on Social Security "privatization," Republicans are hurting themselves by backtracking on the issue, reformers complain.

"We think it's just a bad strategy to play defense all the time, that you can't just curl up in a fetal position and beg not to have the Democrats say nasty things about you," said Michael Tanner, who heads the Cato Institute's newly renamed "Project on Social Security Choice." Amid the fight over how to define "privatization," however, Cato unceremoniously dropped the word from the project's title.

"The worst possible stance for the GOP is to be perceived as unprincipled flip-floppers on the Social Security issue," Steve Moore, president of the Club for Growth, warned in a Sept. 10 memo to National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.).

"We now have a number of candidates in close races who are forced to explain why they were once for private investment account options and now they are against it," wrote Moore. "That is a losing proposition."

Republican House candidates Chris Chocola (Ind.), Rep. George Gekas (Pa.), Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) have all taken steps to distance themselves from "privatization." Many candidates have rushed to sign a widely circulated pledge to oppose privatization.

In an unusual twist, GOP Senate candidate John Thune (S.D.) is attacking the incumbent Democrat by accusing him in TV ads of "[supporting] a Social Security privatization plan that lets the federal government invest Social Security in the stock market."

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) denies the charge, saying he once liked the idea of including personal retirement accounts within Social Security but no longer holds that view.

Steve Schmidt, NRCC communications director, denies the committee is encouraging its House candidates to run away from the issue.

"Republican candidates across the country are making clear that they support the president on the concept of personal accounts," said Schmidt. "They're opposed to 'privatizing' Social Security," as well as tax increases on Social Security, an increase of the retirement age and a reduction of benefits, he said.

Schmidt pointed to an Aug. 26 memo from the NRCC to Republican House candidates advising them to "expose the Democrat strategy to portray 'personal accounts' and 'privatization' as identical."

Privatization "carries connotations of dismantling the publicly run Social Security system," the memo explains, rather than a personal retirement accounts system that operates within the government-run program.

But Democrats welcome the internal struggle over the matter.

"I think right now [Republicans] got the worst of both worlds," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "They're being dishonest about a policy they believe in. Sometimes people give you credit if you're wrong on the policy, which they are, but at least you stand up for your beliefs.

"What Tom Davis is telling people to do is to lie about their beliefs," said Mellman. "The whole point of [Moore's] memo is to say, 'you guys are for private accounts, and instead of acting like you're not, you ought to tell the truth and say why you're for it.'"

According to the 2002 report of the Social Security system's Board of Trustees, the Social Security system in 2016 will begin spending more on benefits than it brings in through payroll taxes. That deficit spending will also continue indefinitely, the report states.

E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

See Earlier Stories:

Dems Hope Social Security Dispute Has Traction on Campaign Trail

Partial Social Security Privatization OK, Most Americans Say