The Midterm Elections: Democrats Play the Fear Card
Policy + Politics

The Midterm Elections: Democrats Play the Fear Card

On the 75th anniversary of Social Security last August 13th President Obama accused Republicans of wanting to privatize the system, code for destroying Social Security.  Some Republican leaders in Congress “are pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall," Obama said. The gauntlet was thrown and the strategy was set for the midterm elections.  

It didn’t take long for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to unveil a hard hitting TV ad blasting Republican Sean Duffy for favoring privatizing Social Security. If Duffy and other Republicans had had their way, the ad said, average Americans would have lost 40 percent of their Social Security holdings in the last Wall Street meltdown. "The plan to privatize Social Security is the wrong choice for Wisconsin’s families” the ad says.

Duffy is running to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and the ad is likely to hurt him in his rural northwestern Wisconsin district because of the large number of seniors and blue collar workers living there. But the Democratic ad doesn’t describe Duffy’s position on privatizing Social Security, and for good reason: He never specifically endorsed the idea of diverting part of the Social Security payroll tax to the stock market to try to maximize retirement holdings. But Duffy does support a long-term deficit-reduction plan designed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that includes private accounts.

Duffy’s supporters complain that the ad stoops to guilt by association and Duffy insists on his campaign Website that he opposes Social Security privatization, but Democratic Party leaders say he's fair game for their assault. Since 1964 when the Democrats used the picture of a torn Social Security card in an ad against Barry Goldwater,  political ads warning that Republicans plan to ”loot”  Social Security have become a staple of Democratic campaigns. The Democrats used it again in 1982 and picked up 26 House seats.  This year, with a potential GOP tsunami looming, the scary ads are being trotted out again. 

The Democrats’ campaign strategy coincides with rising public concern about the future of Social Security. For the first time this year, the federal retirement system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes -- and will remain solvent only until 2015.  

Polls show that most Americans fear that Social Security is running out of money and that changes have to be made to keep the system afloat. A Gallup poll conducted in July 2010 showed that a majority of Americans would support higher taxes or limiting benefits for the wealthy as possible ways of addressing the problem. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll conducted in late August found that  voters had greatest “reservations” or discomfort with “a candidate who supports phasing out Social Security and instead supports allowing workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market.” 

President Obama has appointed a commission to look at the long term debt problems, and one of the things members are looking at is ways to change the Social Security system, such as raising the retirement age. Former President George W. Bush’s proposal for a transition to a combination of a government-funded program and personal accounts  through partial privatization of Social Security never went anywhere. But Ryan, a leading GOP budget expert, has been promoting his “Roadmap” to a more stable budget future that includes a number of measures that only some Republicans have embraced – including privatizing part of Social Security. 

The anti-Duffy ad is one of three unveiled in the last two weeks by the Democratic campaign committee in its first round of ads. A second target was Republican Dan Benishek of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who’s hoping to succeed retiring Democrat Bart Stupak.

The Democratic Party is not alone with this strategy. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Workers ad sets its sights on Republican Tim Walberg who is challenging Democratic incumbent Mark Schauer in south central Michigan’s 7th district. 

Walberg has said he supports “the privatization of the so-called Social Security system” and that there should be a “date certain where no longer does anybody have to put into Social Security.”

Democrats have also gone after Republicans and Tea Party-backed candidates in key Senate races, including Sharron Angle in her bid against Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Ken Buck who is challenging Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett in Colorado.

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner, strongly denies that the GOP favors privatization and says that the main position of the GOP is to “preserve Social Security to make sure it is there for future generations.” Steel told The Fiscal Times, “there are a lot of good ideas out there” on how to preserve Social Security and these ads merely show that the Democrats are “flat out of ideas other than taxing and spending.”

Several watchdogs group including PoliFact have criticized these ads for being misleading. also criticized President Obama for making the charge that “Republican leaders are leading the charge to make Social Security part of their agenda.”

But Jennifer Crider, deputy communication director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said her party is justified in going after GOP candidates on Social Security. “Paul Ryan put into the debate the Republican desire to privatize Social Security,” Crider said. “It is a high profile issue and there is no reason to think it is not on their agenda and every reason to think it is.” Crider added that House Minority Leader John Boehner “is on record as having voted for privatization of Medicare” and for using the Social Security Trust Fund to create private accounts.” Boehner’s spokesman calls that a “stretch” and says that allowing young people to create private accounts is a far cry from privatization.

Pollster Linda DiVall, who is working for Republican candidates in a number of states this fall including the Missouri Senate campaign of Rep Roy Blunt, calls the message of the Democrats’ ads stale. “People accept that changes need to be made,” she said. “Democrats have been trying this for years and no one has taken away Social Security. Republicans want to protect it and make changes, to save it.” DiVall added that attempts at privatization have gotten nowhere “and are not going to happen.”