With a nine-seat majority in the House of Representatives and a one-vote minority in the Senate, Republicans are sensitive to any political trends that could hurt them in November 2002. Now their own internal polls are giving them something to worry about.
Suddenly, according to these polls, support for the Bush White House's management of the country seems to be eroding. And distrust of the Republicans' approach to Social Security is on the rise.
So it's no surprise that Republicans -- led by Bush -- have made particularly aggressive promises to stay away from the Social Security surplus, and are instead promising to trim the Bush budget.
Though there are GOP exceptions to this -- most notably Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee -- many Republicans seem to have embraced the promise not to spend Social Security dollars on anything else.
The Republican poll on Social Security, presented a few weeks ago to leaders of the National Republican Congressional Committee, showed that Republicans are vulnerable on the issue. "A potential pivot point this cycle is how the Administration and Republicans in Congress deal with the issue of Social Security," according to the report, issued by the GOP polling organization Public Opinion Strategies. "We would not recommend floor votes on Social Security before a mid-term election."
Then on Wed., Sept. 5, as first mentioned last week by the Washington Times, GOP pollster Dave Winston met with approximately 100 Republican members of the House and Senate with some more bad news. From July to August, there was a 12-point shift on the question of whether Americans think the country was headed in the right direction.
A July poll showed Americans mildly optimistic, with a consensus believing, by an 8-point margin, that we're headed in the right direction. But by August, the Virginia-based Winston Group poll indicates, this reversed course, and suddenly those who believed the country was on the "wrong track," held a four-point lead.
According to one person attending the Sept. 5 briefing, Winston blamed the shift on reports that the public "heard that we might have to dip into Social Security. A lot of folks spent the last 18 months watching their 401k's shrink and when you layer on top of that this 'Gee, there's a discussion about dipping into Social Security!' they get very nervous."
That fear might have been one of the few successful tactics Vice President Al Gore employed during his presidential run, and may now be paying political dividends. According to the Public Opinion Strategies poll report, "The Democrats know they made progress on this issue after the third [presidential] debate when they ran their ad saying essentially, 'Bush promised a trillion dollars to younger workers and a trillion dollars to seniors. Whose promise will he break?'" It goes on to state, "Gore's late focus on Social Security was one of the key factors in the presidential race being fought to a virtual draw."
The Public Opinion Strategies poll was conducted at the end of July and presented on Aug. 16, before the recent news from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that President Bush's budget would need to dip into approximately $9 billion of the Social Security surplus this year. Bill McInturff, who headed the poll and made the presentation to the NRCC, declined to comment on its contents to Salon.
A Republican party official familiar with the Public Opinion Strategies poll said its forcefulness would have policy ramifications in the appropriations process. "What the poll does is force Republicans to hold the line on spending" so as not to dip into the Social Security surplus, the official said: "It will lead to an across-the-board spending cut, which is comfortable ground for Republicans to be on."
This is especially true, the executive says, since last Friday, after Bush administration official Mitch Daniels of the Office of Management and Budget came to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and other GOP Hill leaders with some bad news. Daniels, through some budget tricks, hid the raid on the Social Security surplus in the official OMB budget. But he privately acknowledged on Friday that the amount needed from the Social Security surplus to cover Bush's budget may be $15 billion, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
Hastert spokesman John Feehery said that he would be "surprised" if the House held any serious votes on Social Security before the mid-term elections.
As for Daniels' news on Friday that the Bush budget looked to spend $15 billion of the Social Security surplus, Feehery said, "We're looking for ways to make sure that doesn't happen, including cutting spending."
Feehery acknowledged, however, that Democrats can score points on the issue. "The Democrats have clearly returned to their usual game of demagoguing on Social Security as they did in 1982 and 1986," Feehery said. "We're cognizant of that and we know we need to be very, very forceful on defense."
Senior citizens make up 14 percent of the adult population, approximately 18 percent of the voters in a presidential year and up to 22 percent of the voting populace in an off-year election.
In Winston's presentation, however -- which was put together at the request of Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn. -- it was those in the 55-64 age group who were described as the most nervous. These are individuals whose retirement programs have suffered in the stock market and are therefore extra fearful about the government spending Social Security money on other programs, the pollster explained.
Winston also cautioned Republicans against panicking. Voters are at the stage where they're edgy and wondering what Washington is going to do in response to the budget problems, Winston said. Thus, on Sunday Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., was discussing further tax cuts -- both capital gains and payroll taxes -- to encourage economic growth.
"The strategy is to show that there are a number of options that Congress can pursue to help to stimulate the economy," said Lott spokesman Ron Bonjean, highlighting discussions of trade, energy and tax cuts. Democrats, on the other hand, have laid the problem at Bush's feet and said, in effect, he got us into this mess, he needs to get us out of it. "The Democrats are devoid of ideas," Bonjean says.
Not true, counters a Senate Democratic leadership aide. Back when they were the minority party in the Senate, the Democrats had an economic plan that included tax cuts, investment funds, as well as a contingency cushion of money in case projections didn't work out -- which they haven't.
Besides, says the aide, "What's the use of us coming up with responses if President Bush is still unwilling to fully recognize the extent of the problem?"