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Social Security Has GOP Reaching for Its Worry Beads

While presidential senior adviser Karl Rove and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman have spent considerable time trying to convince Republican Members of Congress that Social Security won’t be a political albatross in the 2006 elections, they have so far met only mixed results. [IMGCAP(1)]

The same can be said for the party’s other campaign professionals.

For while President Bush’s job standing seemed to improve following his State of the Union address and the successful elections in Iraq, most Republican strategists and campaign operatives are increasingly nervous about what the broader political environment will look like over the next 18 months.

While these GOPers emphasize that they admire and support the president’s attempt to “save” Social Security and his efforts to cut the federal deficit, they also worry that his initiatives will give Democrats weapons to use against Republican House and Senate candidates next year.

“Anytime you go into a six-year-itch election, it pays to be paranoid,” said one Republican politico who noted that voters often punish the president’s party in House and Senate contests in the second midterm election of a two-term president.

That Republican, and most others I interviewed, expressed concern that the 2006 elections would revolve around a series of issues that would place GOP candidates on the defensive.

“I’m not apoplectic. I’m only borderline apoplectic,” said one Republican involved over the years in dozens of campaigns. “Democrats didn’t make much use of Social Security in 2004, so I’m not sure why we would be handing them an issue that they have used effectively against us over the years.”

“We are going to have to deal with Social Security [in next year’s races], and that could be a problem because 40 percent of the electorate in the midterm is 55 and older,” added another campaign pro.

“Looking at the president’s principles [on Social Security], they are not the most salable or easy to understand,” chimed in another Republican with years of election experience.

These and other GOP insiders argue that the party has been successful talking about national security, taxes and cultural issues, and that making Social Security the focal point of next year is a political crap shoot that involves considerable risk.

“If we are still talking about this next September, and the public sees it as a matter of us wanting to cut benefits or raise taxes in order to establish private accounts, we are in trouble,” one savvy consultant told me.

Party campaign veterans also express concern that Democrats will point to Bush’s budget cuts (especially on Medicare and education) as a way to paint the president and his party as insensitive to seniors and to children.

But these same party strategists are also realistic enough to understand that they won’t set the terms of the 2006 elections. The president will.

“Would I feel comfortable if Social Security is the dominant issue” in next year’s elections? asked one GOP strategist rhetorically. “No, but it may be, so we better figure out how to make it work.”

Not all GOPers express trepidation about the impact of Social Security on the midterms.

“If we take the offensive and shape the debate on our terms,” said Republican pollster John McLaughlin, whose willingness to be quoted probably stems from his optimistic take, “we can intensify our base and add to it with younger voters and minorities,” many of whom are favorably inclined to private accounts.

But party strategists generally believe the White House must also work to force Democrats to put their own Social Security proposal on the table, woo some opposition Senators to support Bush’s plan and ultimately paint opponents as insensitive to Social Security’s problems.

Some even wonder about Bush’s endgame, figuring that guru Rove may just have a Social Security exit strategy up his sleeve that would leave the Republicans looking pretty good and the Democrats on the defensive.

“The overused ‘third rail’ metaphor is still relevant. This is a battle that Bush could easily have passed on to” another president, said one strategist who figures — or at least hopes — that the White House is a couple of steps ahead of everyone else on the politics of Social Security.

GOP optimists seem to believe they can shape the public debate on Social Security and the rest of the Bush domestic agenda by using the bully pulpit and the logic of their arguments. Pessimists — I’d call them realists — know that the president’s Social Security agenda will be met with fierce opposition, that younger voters won’t vote in 2006 primarily on Social Security and that seniors scare easily.

So what do GOP campaign professionals want the midterms to be about, if not Social Security or the cost of prescription drugs or education spending?

“We want ’06 to be about the Democrats,” said one Republican strategist slowly, as if every word in the sentence were a tasty dessert.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, the ’06 environment could be far less delicious.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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