Republican lawmakers, trying to convince a skeptical public about the wisdom of their Social Security proposals, decided yesterday that it was time to roll out a new metaphor.
Their choice: a brown 1935 Ford three-window Coupe, which House GOP leaders ordered driven onto a sidewalk outside the Capitol. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and a few colleagues stood in front of the antique, built the same year Franklin D. Roosevelt built Social Security, and likened the two.
"I wouldn't be caught dead in a 1935 automobile," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference's PR effort on Social Security. "And I want to make sure we have an updated system of Social Security, because that's America's investment vehicle."
But the car's owner, Henry Dubois, a retired government worker from Virginia, said McHenry's metaphor was off. "I didn't like that comment," he said, opening the hood to reveal a gleaming '41 Mercury hot-rod engine that was completely rebuilt two years ago. "It's in very good shape for a 1935," Dubois said, putting the Coupe's value at around $20,000. "It's been improved with an updated engine, so it keeps up with traffic."
That is indeed a metaphor, though not the intended one. President Bush and his legislative allies want to convince Americans that the Social Security program is outdated and should be replaced in part by personal accounts. But the owners say they like their old clunker just fine and don't think it needs much more than a new crankshaft.
Dueling events by the GOP and Democrats yesterday afternoon underscored the difficulty Bush allies have in the Social Security argument.
The Republicans, in the southeast driveway of the Capitol, brought out a collection of curios: a washboard, a box of 20 Mule Team Borax, a Decotel Candlestick telephone, and a Remington portable typewriter. But the collection sent a mixed message: Were they proposing updates to the system, such as replacing the old telephone with a wireless model? Or were they proposing getting rid of the system entirely, like a washboard in the era of washing machines?
Unlike young McHenry (at 29, he's the youngest in Congress), Hastert praised the old Ford, suggesting that all he was proposing for Social Security was routine servicing. "We're not looking to trade in Social Security; we want to strengthen it," he said. "Like the car, it needs some upkeep."
But despite Hastert's nuance, the Democrats found the GOP event easy to caricature, suggesting that Republicans wanted to sell Social Security for scrap. Across the Capitol complex at the Hart Senate Office Building, Democrats gathered for their news conference in front of a banner proclaiming "Fix It, Don't Nix It" -- 21 times.
"Long before the '35 Ford, we had the United States Constitution," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.). "It is not out of date. Sometimes it needs a little amending."
The combatants -- Bush, GOP leaders and Democratic leaders -- jockeyed to set the tone for scores of town-hall meetings about Social Security, as lawmakers prepared to leave town for two weeks.
At the Democratic event, more than two dozen lawmakers, many wearing "I H Social Security" pins, maneuvered for position behind the podium in hopes of getting on camera. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio) arrived early, planted herself next to the lectern and refused to budge. "We're on the road, we're on the Internet, on college campuses, in the Congress!" declared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). At the GOP event, only a handful of lawmakers were in attendance; Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) was a no-show.
Bush started the day's events with a morning news conference, in which he declined to offer a Shermanesque vow in favor of private accounts and went out of his way to say that the accounts weren't the answer. "I repeat, personal accounts do not permanently fix the solution," he said.
Early in the afternoon, the Democrats in the Hart building tried to exploit that as evidence that Bush was surrendering on the accounts. "The president is learning that if we're going to sit down on a bipartisan basis and take care of Social Security, the first thing we have to do is take privatization off the table," said Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) the Senate minority whip.
Out on the Capitol grounds, the Republicans plugged private accounts somewhat more vigorously than Bush had done. Thomas grabbed the Decotel phone and pretended to have a conversation with a 67-year-old woman. "No, ma'am, don't pay any attention to those ads you see on TV," he said.
The fictitious woman quickly agreed with Thomas. If only convincing real people were so easy.