Commentary

Social Security: The Red and the Blue

This article appeared in the Northern Virginia Journal and its sister paper the Maryland Journal, November 24, 2004.

No sooner had the 2004 election ended than Washington began drawing battle lines over the next big issue — Social Security reform. Just two days after his reelection, President Bush said that fixing Social Security would be a top priority of his second term. He pledged to spend political capital in support of his proposal to allow younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through individual accounts. Predictably, Democratic leaders vowed to take it to the mattresses.

But there is no reason why Social Security reform has to be a partisan issue. In fact, there is a long history of Democrats working for more choice, ownership and control over their retirement funds. Democrats like former Senators Robert Kerry and Patrick Moynihan were among the earliest proponents of individual accounts. The Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank arm, the Progressive Policy Institute, have been supportive. Even former president Bill Clinton was willing to consider the idea. Some Washington observers believe that only the Lewinsky scandal preventing him from endorsing individual accounts.

Outside the beltway, support for individual accounts cuts across both ideological and demographic lines. Exit polls this November showed that 56 percent of voters supported individual account proposals, with only 32 percent opposed. Substantial majorities of men (56 percent), women (57 percent), young people (66 percent), African-Americans (62 percent), Hispanics (65 percent), Catholics (63 percent) and Evangelicals (62 percent) all backed individual accounts. As expected majorities of conservatives (71 percent) and Bush voters (69 percent) supported individual accounts, but so did 41 percent of self-described liberals. Indeed, 44 percent of Kerry voters favored the proposal. On Social Security, there is no red state, blue state divide.

The challenge is to bring this nationwide, bipartisan support for individual accounts inside the Beltway. That will require Republicans to reach out to sympathetic Democrats — taking into account their concerns that any reform plan be fiscally responsible — and for Democratic moderates to be willing to break with the entrenched “do nothing” wing of their party. In this regard, it is promising that two of rising stars of the Democratic Party, Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) and Senator-elect Barack Obama (D-Ill.), have both indicated a willingness to consider personal accounts.

After all, giving younger workers a chance to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes would:

  • Help restore Social Security to long-term solvency, without massive tax increases or benefit cuts that would fall heaviest on low-income workers;
  • Provide workers with higher benefits than Social Security would otherwise be able to pay, keeping millions of seniors out of poverty;

  • Create a system that treats women, minorities, and young people more fairly;
  • Allow low-income workers to accumulate real, inheritable wealth for the first time in their lives; and most importantly
  • Give workers ownership and control over their retirement funds.

These should not be Republican or Democratic goals. They are American goals.

Democrats in Congress now face a choice. For years, attacking Republicans over Social Security has been an almost Pavlovian response, an essential element of their political arsenal. But the “third rail of American politics” has lost its juice. It no longer brings electoral success.

Now they must decide whether they engage in a thoughtful debate over Social Security’s problems and possible solutions, or will they cling to the failed tactics of the past?

Ever since election day, we’ve heard calls for bipartisanship. Social Security would be a great place to start.

Michael Tanner is director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Social Security Choice.