Democrats Turn to Social Security for Political Momentum

Battered over Obamacare, the party wants to refocus the argument over entitlements.

Social Security supporters attend a rally in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 28, 2011 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
March 6, 2014, midnight

In­creas­ingly anxious about the pro­spect of a dif­fi­cult elec­tion year, Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates are already start­ing to take refuge in one of the party’s most tried-and-true is­sues: So­cial Se­cur­ity.

It’s hap­pen­ing in Arkan­sas, where Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Pry­or has de­ployed a blitz of TV ads to ac­cuse his op­pon­ent, GOP Rep. Tom Cot­ton, of plot­ting to cut, privat­ize, and un­der­mine the pop­u­lar en­ti­tle­ment pro­gram. House Ma­jor­ity PAC, a su­per PAC that helps Demo­crat­ic House can­did­ates, has sim­il­arly taken to the air­waves to ar­gue that Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates want to ef­fect­ively get rid of it.

And in Flor­ida, where the parties face off in a spe­cial House elec­tion next week, So­cial Se­cur­ity has been the Demo­crats’ go-to at­tack against Re­pub­lic­an Dav­id Jolly. “I don’t think it’s right for Dav­id Jolly to risk So­cial Se­cur­ity money in the stock mar­ket,” said one neg­at­ive ad, fea­tur­ing an eld­erly couple talk­ing in­to the cam­era.

The at­tacks are the first glimpses of an is­sue the party will push to the fore­front of the 2014 elec­tions, ac­cord­ing to Demo­crat­ic strategists. With can­did­ates battered by Obama­care’s deep­en­ing un­pop­ular­ity, So­cial Se­cur­ity rep­res­ents one of their surest bets of put­ting Re­pub­lic­ans on the de­fens­ive in a year when the GOP oth­er­wise plans to play a lot of of­fense.

“So­cial Se­cur­ity re­mains a po­tent an is­sue for Demo­crats,” said Jef Pol­lock, a Demo­crat­ic strategist. “In mul­tiple na­tion­al polls, data shows that voters be­lieve that the Demo­crats are bet­ter able to pro­tect So­cial Se­cur­ity go­ing for­ward, and have also seen ample evid­ence about the reck­less ap­proach that most GOP­ers have taken to privat­iz­ing the sys­tem — something that is a real neg­at­ive for any GOP can­did­ate.”

The ques­tion is wheth­er this amounts to smart strategy or a des­per­ate play from a party with nowhere else to turn. The last great Demo­crat­ic hope for polit­ic­al suc­cess — the GOP’s sup­port for Rep. Paul Ry­an’s plan to voucher­ize Medi­care for fu­ture be­ne­fi­ciar­ies — failed to de­liv­er the sweep­ing con­gres­sion­al vic­tor­ies Demo­crats had prom­ised. And the is­sue hardly ad­dresses the elec­tion’s cur­rent top­ic du jour, the troubled im­ple­ment­a­tion of Obama­care.

“The na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment for Demo­crats is ter­rible, so they’re look­ing for any spe­cif­ic things they can, grasp­ing at straws,” said Keith Emis, a poll­ster for Cot­ton. “The elec­tion is about Obam­care, and they want it to be about something else.”

As a polit­ic­al is­sue, So­cial Se­cur­ity has laid re­l­at­ively dormant in re­cent years, sup­planted by a fierce de­bate over health care, Medi­care, and Obama­care. Pres­id­ent Obama largely sidestepped it dur­ing his last pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, in­stead strik­ing a con­cili­at­ory note that the two parties should be able to ne­go­ti­ate over the pro­gram’s fu­ture.

It flared briefly last year, when dis­cus­sions began over im­ple­ment­ing the “chained CPI,” a pro­pos­al that would have ef­fect­ively cut pay­outs to be­ne­fi­ciar­ies. The plan from Obama angered pro­gress­ive Demo­crats who con­sidered the policy and polit­ics wrong­headed, and even the chair­man of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, Greg Walden, warned his fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans about the pro­pos­al’s polit­ic­al con­sequences.

But it makes sense that some Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates would, along with con­tin­ued at­tacks on Medi­care, dust off the line of cri­ti­cism now. It’s dic­tated in part by the real es­tate of the 2014 elec­tion: Most of this year’s com­pet­it­ive House and Sen­ate races — such as those in Arkan­sas or Louisi­ana — are in con­ser­vat­ive, older, and whiter states. In places like those, So­cial Se­cur­ity is one of the few is­sues where the Demo­crat­ic agenda re­mains well-liked among voters. Polls show that seni­ors, even those who are Re­pub­lic­an, have a deep aver­sion to cut­ting the pro­gram even if it would help the coun­try’s de­fi­cit.

“You’ll see Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity right at the fore­front of the con­trast we’re draw­ing between ourselves and our op­pon­ent,” said Erik Dorey, spokes­man for Pry­or’s cam­paign.

The sen­at­or’s cam­paign says its at­tacks against Cot­ton have res­on­ance be­cause the fresh­man House mem­ber voted for a budget last year that sup­por­ted rais­ing the re­tire­ment pro­grams’ eli­gib­il­ity age. Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans, however, point out that it’s hardly a front-burn­er is­sue in Wash­ing­ton or else­where. While Obama­care is driv­en in­to the pub­lic con­scious­ness by count­less news stor­ies about its foibles, delays, and broken prom­ises, noth­ing makes So­cial Se­cur­ity sim­il­arly rel­ev­ant in 2014.

“I think there’s noth­ing to push back against; it’s not an is­sue,” said Peter Fea­man, a Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee mem­ber from Flor­ida, who’s watch­ing his state’s spe­cial-elec­tion race closely. “It’s made up out of whole cloth. Point to some bill some­where that’s talk­ing about re­du­cing be­ne­fits for So­cial Se­cur­ity re­cip­i­ents — it’s not there, at all.”

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