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AARP Surveys Haunt GOP

Concerned that the early details of President Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security run counter to talking points embraced by a slew of House Republicans in recent elections, GOP strategists are warning that the same message that helped elect Members in the past could lead to their defeat in 2006.

At issue is whether establishing personal accounts allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market — the central plank of the Bush plan — amounts to privatizing the system.

A look at AARP questionnaires filled out by targeted Republican candidates in 2004 reveals, by and large, a striking sameness of response that centers on four basic pillars: no benefit cuts for current or near retirees, no increase in payroll taxes, no raising of the retirement age and no privatization of the system. Those principles were based on a Social Security research project funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2002 cycle.

Bush has yet to completely lay out his plan for the reform of Social Security but has said he will consider a number of options to make up the estimated $2 trillion in transition costs, including raising the retirement age.

“It starts to create an issue for the White House,” said a Republican lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Even within their own party it’s a bit more uphill than if the NRCC and Republicans in general had not been so scared on this issue.”

Carl Forti, communications director at the NRCC, insisted that nothing in the current Bush plan runs afoul of the advice handed out by the committee on the issue during the past several cycles.

“The tenets were crafted with the input of the NRCC, the White House and everyone involved in this debate and were built to ensure maximum flexibility for those candidates who chose to abide by them,” Forti said.

Of the targeted Republicans in the past two cycles, only Reps. Jon Porter (Nev.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Rick Renzi (Ariz.) formally opposed creating private accounts within Social Security in the AARP surveys.

Newly elected Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.) was the only Member in a targeted race to formally support the creation of private accounts. Most GOP candidates did not check either the “supports” or “opposes” box, although nearly every candidate did outline their basic principles in a written response.

Adam Mayberry, a spokesman for Porter, said that privatization is “defined as some private entity coming in and running Social Security,” not the establishment of personal accounts within the framework of the existing system, which Bush has proposed.

But, Porter filled out an AARP questionnaire last cycle asserting he opposed the creation of private individual accounts, which the organization defines as any investment of funds in the stock market regardless of who manages the money.

“‘Personal control’ sounds appealing,” according to the group’s position as outlined in the questionnaire, “but substituting private individual accounts, even for part of Social Security, drains money from Social Security, which means less money to pay guaranteed benefits.”

While the fight over personalization versus privatization rages on, some Republicans see other potential proposals on Social Security reform as complicating factors for vulnerable GOPers.

No one contacted for this story blamed the NRCC for its strategy on Social Security, acknowledging that the committee’s job is electing Members, not policymaking. One party source said that “from a tactical level I don’t disagree with them having their blinders on.”

The potential risk to Republican candidates, however, is exacerbated by the fact that 2006 qualifies as a “six-year itch” election — Bush’s second term, midterm election.

Since World War II, there have been five such elections; the party out of the presidency has picked up an average of 29 House seats and six Senate seats.

Already the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has used the AARP questionnaires to attack a number of Republican Members on privatization including Renzi, Rep. Rob Simmons (Conn.) and Rep. Bob Beauprez (Colo.), among others.

“Every Republican Member will have to decide whether they are going to put their narrow partisan and ideological interests before the interests of their constituents and protecting Social Security,” said DCCC Communications Director Greg Speed.

Much depends on how the issue is ultimately framed for voters, a fight as reliant on the language being used as the actual substance of the bill, according to strategists on both sides of the aisle.

Democrats argue that the alleged GOP word games are an example of “semantic infiltration,” the purposeful substitution of an offensive word for one less controversial.

Republicans, too, acknowledge the difficulty in the language debate.

“If [vulnerable GOP Members] decide to support it, they are going to have to make the case that it meets the standards” laid out by the NRCC, said one party insider.

“It is a pretty clear risk,” the source added. “It is a risk a number of Members are well aware of.”

That risk may be lessened, at least somewhat, by the president’s willingness to provide political cover on the reform of Social Security, according to Republican consultant Jon Lerner.

“The president’s aggressive leadership and salesmanship on the issue has the effect of changing the terms of the debate in ways that make it much easier for Congressional Republicans to support personal accounts,” Lerner said.