Democrats find a tar­get

Some ‘tea party’ Repub­li­cans’ calls to pri­va­tize or kill So­cial Se­cu­rity re­new an old line of at­tack

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Matea Gold re­port­ing from washington

The day af­ter Jesse Kelly won the Repub­li­can pri­mary in Ari­zona’s 8th Con­gres­sional District, Demo­cratic in­cum­bent Gabrielle Gif­fords went on the air with a lac­er­at­ing at­tack. Not­ing that Kelly said he ul­ti­mately wanted to elim­i­nate So­cial Se­cu­rity, Gif­fords’ tele­vi­sion ad warned that Kelly “is a risk we can’t af­ford.”

Kelly, a con­struc­tion man­ager with no po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, had made the mis­take of ven­tur­ing into the mine-strewn pol­i­tics of So­cial Se­cu­rity. No mat­ter that he said he would pre­serve ben­e­fits for cur­rent re­tirees. The fact that he once de­scribed it as “the biggest pyra­mid scheme in his­tory” gave his ri­val the equiv­a­lent of can­non fod­der in a district where nearly one-fifth of the pop­u­la­tion is older than 65.

Kelly is now run­ning his own ad vow­ing to “honor our com­mit­ment to se­niors,” try­ing to fend off a line of as­sault that Democrats are step­ping up through­out the coun­try. It’s one of the few con­sis­tent themes in Demo­cratic cam­paign com­mer­cials in a year when the party has oth­er­wise es­chewed a na­tional mes­sage.

Ac­cus­ing Repub­li­cans of want­ing to do away with So­cial Se­cu­rity is a well-worn trope for Democrats. But a slew of “tea party”-backed can­di­dates who have called

for pri­va­tiz­ing or elim­i­nat­ing the pro­gram have given Democrats fresh am­mu­ni­tion at a time when they are on the de­fen­sive about health­care re­form and the eco­nomic stim­u­lus.

The strat­egy al­lows Democrats to link their ri­vals to for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, who sought to al­low younger work­ers to in­vest a por­tion of their So­cial Se­cu­rity taxes in the stock mar­ket.

“And be­cause it has also be­come a ral­ly­ing cry among some of the tea party move­ment … it’s an in­di­ca­tor of how far to the right and how ex­treme a po­si­tion the Repub­li­can can­di­dates are tak­ing,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Mary­land, chair­man of the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, which has de­voted the ma­jor­ity of its spots to slam­ming House GOP can­di­dates on the topic.

Repub­li­cans, how­ever, com­plain that their ri­vals are dis­tort­ing their po­si­tion. “There have been nu­mer­ous fact-checks and editorials call­ing out Democrats for their So­cial Se­cu­rity attacks,” said Paul Lind­say, spokesman for the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee. “Democrats are desperately try­ing to scare se­niors.”

“This is what a Demo­crat says when they’re los­ing an ar­gu­ment,” said Grover Norquist, pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive Amer­i­cans for Tax Re­form. “If they’re say­ing this, it means they don’t have any­thing else to say.”

Nev­er­the­less, Norquist ad­vises GOP can­di­dates to steer clear of So­cial Se­cu­rity on the cam­paign trail: “It’s too easy to dem­a­gogue.”

In­deed, it’s a tes­ta­ment to the po­lit­i­cal thorni­ness of the sub­ject that most Repub­li­cans are stren­u­ously avoid­ing it now that the pri­maries have passed. While Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) pro­posed per­sonal re­tire­ment ac­counts for younger work­ers in his “Roadmap for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture” eco­nomic plan this year, the GOP “Pledge to Amer­ica” re­leased last week does not ad­dress how to re­form So­cial Se­cu­rity, whose out­lays will reg­u­larly ex­ceed its rev­enue be­gin­ning in 2016, the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice es­ti­mates.

But Democrats are still feed­ing off com­ments made by their GOP ri­vals ear­lier in the year. In Ne­vada, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid weaves it into nearly ev­ery spot he runs against Repub­li­can Shar­ron An­gle, who has backed away from ear­lier state­ments that she would phase out So­cial Se­cu­rity. A com­mer­cial for Sen. Michael Ben­net (D-Colo.) in­cludes footage of GOP ri­val Ken Buck call­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity “a hor­ri­ble pol­icy,” words Buck later said he re­gret­ted.

A com­mer­cial for Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.) spot­lights a clip of GOP chal­lenger Todd Young call­ing the pro­gram “a Ponzi scheme.” And a new ad by Demo­cratic chal­lenger Tar­ryl Clark ar­gues that Rep. Michele Bach­mann (R-Minn.) views se­niors as ad­dicts, not­ing that she said she wants to “wean ev­ery­body off ” So­cial Se­cu­rity.

“In the past, the Democrats had to strain and work hard to con­vey the risk of a Repub­li­can vic­tory to So­cial Se­cu­rity,” said Lawrence Ja­cobs, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota who stud­ies the pro­gram. “This year, it’s low-hang­ing fruit … be­cause there are prom­i­nent Repub­li­cans run­ning for the Se­nate and House who have very pub­licly and clearly raised ques­tions about fu­ture of So­cial Se­cu­rity.”

But in some races, Democrats have taken more generic com­ments by GOP can­di­dates as ev­i­dence of their an­tipa­thy to the en­ti­tle­ment. In Wis­con­sin, the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee has run three ads as­sert­ing that for­mer pros­e­cu­tor Sean Duffy, the GOP nom­i­nee for an open House seat, sup­ports a plan to pri­va­tize So­cial Se­cu­rity. “Sean Duffy may not be wor­ried about his re­tire­ment se­cu­rity, but the rest of us are,” stated one, fea­tur­ing im­ages of the one­time star of MTV’s “The Real World” climb­ing into a pur­ple SUV.

As ev­i­dence, the com­mit­tee cited Duffy’s en­dorse­ment of Ryan’s “Roadmap” plan. But Duffy has never ex­plic­itly voiced sup­port for per­sonal ac­counts, and on his cam­paign web­site he states, “I have not and will not en­dorse pri­va­tiz­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity.” The Democrats’ cam­paign com­mit­tee said Duffy was merely try­ing to back­track.

It re­mains to be seen whether the Demo­cratic fusil­lade will pay off for them at the bal­lot box. Evan Tracey, pres­i­dent of Cam­paign Me­dia Anal­y­sis Group, a di­vi­sion of Kan­tar Me­dia that tracks po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing, said the party was hit­ting So­cial Se­cu­rity par­tic­u­larly hard in this cy­cle be­cause the pas­sage of health­care re­form took away one of their tra­di­tional cri­tiques of the GOP.

“The Demo­cratic mes­sage is — let’s face it — fear­based and de­signed to get se­niors wor­ried about their So­cial Se­cu­rity check,” he said. “That’s as com­mon as Repub­li­cans call­ing Democrats lib­er­als. I don’t know if any­body has pre­sented a real ar­gu­ment that’s go­ing to con­nect with vot­ers.”

Gary M. Wil­liams

IN­CUM­BENT: Rep. Gabrielle Gif­fords (D-Ariz.) wasted no time in go­ing af­ter GOP ri­val Jesse Kelly for hav­ing said he wants to elim­i­nate So­cial Se­cu­rity.

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