When buzzwords go bad

Stung by Demo attacks, Republicans suddenly deny they want to "privatize" Social Security. Ah, what a difference a few thousand points on the NASDAQ makes!


The Democratic strategy for 2002 is clear: Avoid criticism of the war on terrorism and attack Republicans aggressively on domestic issues, particularly, as we’ve pointed out before, proposals to partially privatize Social Security. In this post-boom era, “privatization” no longer has the optimistic ring to it that it had in the late 1990s when such plans first gained steam.

So is the GOP sticking to its resolve? On the substance of the issue, it largely is. When it comes to style, though, Republicans are running from the term “privatization” as fast as they can.

The Washington Post reported last month that Stephen Schmidt, director of communications for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), was preparing to e-mail candidates that “It is extremely important that Democrats not be allowed to characterize GOP support of personal savings accounts as privatization. It is an imprecise and misleading description … Do not be complicit in Democratic demagoguery.” The New York Times reported last week that another Republican memo making the rounds on Capitol Hill claimed that “Democrat attempts to label the G.O.P. position on Social Security as favoring ‘privatization’ presents a serious threat … G.O.P. members and candidates must fight back against this label.”

As a result, the first prong of the emerging Republican strategy appears to be to deny that they even favor privatization. While some Republican legislators have been reluctant to use the word for quite some time, the GOP is moving toward a denial that goes far beyond simply avoiding the word — it actively attempts to redefine it.

The most aggressive statement to this effect came in a May 4 letter to the National Journal from Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who claimed that “no Republican plan privatizes Social Security. Our plans will strengthen the program. The Social Security Administration will remain intact. Seniors will still receive government checks.” Given that many Republicans are on record supporting at least partial privatization of the system, Thomas seems to be employing an extremely misleading definition of “privatization” as a complete privatization of the entire system. In an attempt to bully opponents into accepting this definition, Thomas suggested that “characterizing … the Republicans’ position as ‘privatization’ is a demagogic falsehood.”

A May 14 e-mail from the National Republican Campaign Committee made this strategy explicit. It claims that “[Rep. Bob] Matsui [D-Calif.] and the Democrat Party are trying to redefine ‘privatize’ in order to scare seniors. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word ‘privatize’ as follows: ‘to turn over (a public property, service, etc.) to private interests.’ (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition). Republicans are opposed to privatizing Social Security.” Of course by any reasonable definition, many Republicans favor at least partial privatization of the Social Security system. The NRCC e-mail elides that distinction in an attempt to redefine the terms of the debate.

The second strand of the campaign to redefine “privatization” is to accuse Democrats of using the term unfairly. John Feehery, spokesman for House Majority leader Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told Roll Call on June 3 that “[Democrats] are making up issues … There are no plans to privatize Social Security. There’s no desire to privatize Social Security. But that’s all the Democrats want to talk about.”

Likewise, a May 13 e-mail from the NRCC claimed that “[Rep.] Matsui continues to misleadingly employ the word ‘privatization,’ a word former Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) characterized as a ‘semantic infiltration’ that was deliberately designed to contort the Social Security debate.” Commenting on Matsui’s use of the word, the e-mail continues by echoing Thomas’ letter: “If Rep. Matsui and the Democrat Party cannot keep their rhetoric honest, we will do it for them. Retirement security is too important to be demagogued for partisan political gain.”

Nonetheless, by having to redefine “privatization,” Republicans are at a disadvantage. Democrats clearly understand this and have been describing the Republican position as “privatization” as often as possible, strategically excluding the modifier “partial” (or any other context about GOP proposals). In a press release late last month, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., used the word over and over again to describe Republican proposals: “We are introducing a rule today that will provide a full debate on all of the Republican proposals to privatize Social Security and cut Social Security benefits. We want people to understand the impact of privatization on their lives. We want them to understand that privatization will cause a cut in benefits; it will break our contract with the American people; it will fundamentally change the way Social Security operates.” Democrats are also using the term as a campaign tool. Typical was South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson’s speech on May 30, reported in the Watertown South Dakota Public Opinion: “Even taking into account other sources, Social Security is the cornerstone of the retirement of virtually every American. We must say no to privatization.” Like Republicans, Democrats are bending the word to their advantage.

Both sides are also pursuing legislative strategies essentially devoid of substance in order to shore up their positions for the upcoming campaigns. The Washington Post reported that House Republicans are considering bringing a bill to fully privatize the Social Security system to a vote specifically so that members can claim that they voted against “privatization” — a straw man at best. On the other side, House Democrats have initiated a discharge petition to bring three partial privatization proposals to the floor and force the GOP’s hand on the issue. The Democrats also have their own bill, the Rejection of Privatization of Social Security Act, which would preemptively vote down any and all such proposals.

It shows that both parties are manipulating the issue. But at least the Democrats aren’t twisting the very terms of the debate. Republicans by and large do want to privatize Social Security, and should admit as much — even if the word doesn’t have the same ring it did four years ago.

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