Social Security remains a potent political issue. A poll taken by the Pew Research Center last fall shows just how many people need it: 58 percent of the so-called Silent Generation, those between the ages of 66 and 86, say the program is their main source of income. Among baby boomers, 42 percent say Social Security is or will be their main source of income.
That dependence explains why, even during a time of historically high unemployment and mushrooming deficits, Social Security remains a top concern of many adults. Members of the Silent Generation listed Social Security as their second most important issue as they consider their choice for president — behind jobs but ahead of the budget deficit and health care. Among all age groups, 58 percent of adults say preserving Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are is more important than reducing the deficit.
Social Security in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily be Ryan’s problem. The chief potential vulnerability lies in how it neatly aligns with the Obama campaign’s narrative that Romney and Ryan would weaken the middle class while strengthening the rich. Democrats were going to use the pair’s Medicare and tax reforms to make that point — Social Security gives them one more arrow in the quiver. “Here you have … someone on the ticket and put themselves out there as architect to end these two mega programs that are part of our national identity,” said Margie Omero, a Democratic strategist. “And that’s going to make them very relevant, and give us something really concrete to talk about.”
It also could bolster the Democrats’ argument with seniors, who constitute a significant portion of the electorate in battleground states like Florida, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. The group has already been at the center of the newly ignited debate over Medicare.
From the GOP perspective, Ryan’s leadership within the Republican Party on Social Security burnishes the Romney campaign theme that this is a ticket with solutions to the country’s biggest problems. And Obama’s reported willingness to reach a deal on Social Security changes could weaken his attacks. Even if it doesn’t, Republicans say the politics of entitlement reform are far different than 2005, when Bush’s Social Security plan failed in the face of staunch opposition.
One Republican who suffered from that fallout is former Rep. Clay Shaw, who represented a senior-heavy district in Palm Beach, Fla. In an interview with National Journal, Shaw said attacks against Social Security could be effective, but not if the Romney campaign has an effective push-back.
“You always hear about what you said yesterday in a political campaign,” Shaw said. “I’m sure they carefully examined that whole issue, but the important thing, and this is what he’s drilling home with Medicare, is it doesn’t affect today’s seniors at all.”