Playing the Social Security card

The Democrats try to scare seniors -- but is their plan any better?

By Ben Fritz
Published April 30, 2002 9:45PM (EDT)

After months of rhetorical restraint occasioned by the ongoing war on terrorism, Democrats are back on the attack, and their weapon of choice is Social Security. The strategy is a familiar one for the party, which again is stretching credulity to frame any budget-related issue favored by Republicans as a threat to Social Security.

Howard Wolfson, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, made this plan explicit when he told Knight Ridder, "This election will determine the future of Social Security. We're willing to stake the outcome of the election on that."

Consider this statement made two weeks ago by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Discussing Republican efforts to make last year's tax cuts permanent, he managed to bring up Social Security three times in one sentence. "We intend to raise this vote as the vote on whether or not you want to keep Social Security strong or whether you don't care about Social Security and you want to keep spending into the Social Security trust fund."

Since Democrats have proposed devoting federal budget surpluses to paying down the debt in order to preserve funding for Social Security, this is certainly a relevant issue. A permanent tax cut's long-term cost could threaten a number of programs, including Social Security. But Gephardt falsely frames it as a purely binary choice, ignoring all the other issues at stake as well as the multitude of plans to shore up Social Security.

Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., continued this strategy on Saturday in the Democratic response to President Bush's weekly radio address. "In recent months, President Bush and congressional Republicans have again pushed for raids on Social Security to finance tax breaks for large corporations including, incredibly, a $250 million tax break for Enron," he claimed. "As you might imagine, these raids will jeopardize the long-term financial security of hard-working American families."

Like Gephardt, Corzine is framing it as an either/or choice by characterizing the entire tax cut as "raids on Social Security." In a nice, jargon-based touch, Corzine also manages to bring up Enron, disingenuously avoiding the fact that the provision under which the bankrupt energy trader would have received a $250 million tax break was cut months ago from the economic stimulus bill that President Bush signed into law.

Democrats are on especially shaky footing because of the way they are avoiding specifics in this debate. Corzine, echoing many Democrats, said in his address, "In our view, these Social Security [taxes] should be used for Social Security and only for Social Security." It is true that Republican budgets for the next fiscal year would use surplus Social Security revenue for other purposes. But while Senate Majority Leader Daschle has yet to bring a Democratic budget resolution to the floor for a vote, it seems highly unlikely in a time of reduced tax revenue and war that theirs will be any different.

It's much easier, though, to frame your opponents' policies as a false choice than to make tough choices of your own.

Ben Fritz

Ben Fritz is co-editor of Spinsanity.


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