Commentary

Social Security and the 2002 Election

“This election is a referendum on Social Security.” So spoke House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt last month. If so, given the election results it appears that the American people have made their opinion perfectly clear. They support proposals to allow younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes.

While much pre-election commentary was devoted to a few Republicans who attempted to blur their position on Social Security in those races where candidates took clear positions in support of individual accounts, it was a winning issue. For example, Hans Reimer of the anti-private account Campaign for America’s Future called the North and South Carolina races “bellwethers” that would hinge on the issue of Social Security reform. Neither Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina nor Lindsay Graham in South Carolina made any attempt to hide their support for individual accounts. Indeed, when accused of supporting “a risky scheme,” both counterattacked, pointing out that their Democratic opponents had no proposals of their own to fix the program’s looming financial crisis. Dole campaigned showing a blank piece of paper as the “Bowles Social Security Plan.” Given a clear choice, voters chose both Graham and Dole by large margins.

In the night’s biggest upset, Georgia Representative Saxby Chambliss defeated incumbent Senator Max Cleland. Although the race turned largely on national security issues, Cleland had attacked Chambliss for wanting to turn “the Social Security benefits of people on Main Street over to Wall Street to play Russian roulette with.” Chambliss, in contrast, signed a pledge, circulated by SocialSecurityChoice.org, promising to support individual accounts if he was elected. In Minnesota, Norm Coleman was another upset winner who signed the SocialSecurityChoice pledge.

Several other prominent supporters of individual accounts won important Senate races as well, including John Corwyn in Texas, Jim Talent in Missouri, and John Sununu in New Hampshire. Sununu was another top target for anti-account activists who poured money into an effort to defeat him. Ads accused him of wanting to “privatize” Social Security to benefit his “wealthy Wall Street backers.” But Sununu won.

Support for individual accounts was a winner in House races too. Few congressmen have been as outspoken in their support for individual accounts as Pat Toomey (R-Penn.), despite the fact that his Democrat-leaning district has high concentrations of both senior citizens and union workers. Opponents of individual accounts poured money and manpower into the district trying to defeat Toomey. Yet Toomey won by a larger margin this year than he had in 2000.

Representatives Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WVa.) also won by larger margins than in 2000, in campaigns where Social Security was a major issue. Shaw not only sponsored legislation to create individual accounts, he chairs the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. His opponent Carol Roberts focused nearly all of her campaign on the issue. In 2000, Shaw won reelection by only a few hundred votes. This year, he took nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Likewise, Capito’s race was once seen by Democrats as a national model for how to use Social Security as a campaign issue. They used the race to test their Social Security attack ads, drawing nationwide attention. But, in the end, Capito too took nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Social Security failed as a Democratic issue in other races as well. Former Representative Jill Long Thompson may have been the first candidate in the country to air an ad attacking her opponent, Chris Chocola, for supporting “privatization.” Chocola won, however, picking up an open seat previously held by Democrats. In Minnesota John Kline refused to compromise on his support for individual accounts and knocked off incumbent Representative Bill Luther. And, in New Mexico, Steve Pearce, another strong supporter of individual accounts, won a newly created seat in a competitive district.

On the other hand, Republicans who decided to run away from Social Security reform didn’t fare so well. Pennsylvania Representative George Gekas abandoned earlier support for individual accounts, even signing a pledge sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future to oppose them. He lost. In New Jersey, Doug Forrester supported individual accounts in the primary and won. He changed his mind in the general election and lost.

The late House Speaker Tip O’Niell is reputed to have called Social Security the “third rail” of American politics-touch it and your career dies. But the third rail has now lost its juice. Across the country, candidates who had the courage to touch the issue not only survived, they won.

We’ve had our referendum and the American people have spoken. Now it’s time for the politicians to act.