Democrats Chase Votes With a Safety Net
By Howard Kurtz
"I'll vote to use the entire budget surplus to save Social Security," said the Democratic House candidate in Kansas. "Vince Snowbarger opposes this plan, and he actually said we should, quote, phase it out."
Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) hugs senior citizens in a similar attack ad against Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister, his Republican opponent: "Nancy Hollister wants to raid Social Security to the tune of $80 billion. And Nancy Hollister wants to gamble your retirement on Wall Street."
It is the oldest weapon in the Democratic arsenal, an appeal to one of the party's most faithful constituencies, but executed with a 1998 twist. In a wave of Social Security ads in the campaign's closing days, some Democrats are linking their rivals to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his $80 billion tax cut plan, which they depict as robbing a budgetary surplus that should be devoted entirely to shoring up the retirement fund.
These commercials also lambaste Republicans for suggesting that some Social Security funds should be steered to private investment accounts -- even though President Clinton has said he is "open-minded" about such proposals.
"It's classic Democratic strategy: Scare the old people when you get in a pinch," said Scott Milburn, a spokesman for Hollister.
Such attack ads underscore the way that serious legislative efforts -- in this case, ensuring the long-term solvency of Social Security as the population ages -- can, in the space of 30 seconds, be turned into campaign dynamite.
A bipartisan commission, including such Democratic senators as Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.), proposed last spring that Social Security put part of its revenue in personal investment accounts and that the retirement age gradually be raised to 70. Clinton said in July that investment accounts would be preferable to raising the payroll tax or cutting benefits.
Similarly, the Gingrich plan to reserve for Social Security 90 percent of a projected $1.6 trillion budget surplus over 10 years might be seen as a major step forward. But Clinton succeeded in framing the issue as whether 100 percent of the surplus should be walled off for Social Security -- giving Democrats a rhetorical club to attack the GOP's unsuccessful $80 billion tax cut plan.
This eleventh-hour air war over Social Security includes AFL-CIO ads in 14 House districts, along with Democratic Party spots in such states as Texas, Oregon and Kentucky. At the same time, some contenders' ads tout endorsements by the Committee to Preserve Social Security, which has donated $650,000 to 262 candidates, three-quarters of them Democrats.
"We make it very clear in talking to candidates what our position is," said Max Richtman, the group's executive vice president, who has been appearing with favored lawmakers.
Republicans, for their part, are returning fire. Snowbarger will air a radio ad today in which former presidential candidate Robert J. Dole, a fellow Kansan, likens the Democratic campaign to the 1996 charges that the GOP was trying to "cut" Medicare.
"Liberal Democrat Dennis Moore and the big labor unions bankrolling his campaign are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars distorting Republican Congressman Vince Snowbarger's record on Social Security," Dole says.
Snowbarger said two years ago that Social Security should be phased out, but "maybe not completely," with younger workers encouraged "to buy their own retirement plans." Snowbarger spokesman Kevin Yowell called the Moore ad "a distortion. To suggest he's going to take checks away from retirees is ridiculous."
Chris Esposito, a spokesman for Moore, says the campaign will stay on offense because "Social Security is probably the most important issue in our race."
Why is Social Security popping up in so many late October ads? Demographics, says Democratic media consultant Peter Fenn. "Our polls are showing that our likely voters are skewing older -- in some cases, close to 60 percent are over 50," he said.
Mary Crawford, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the Democratic "cookie cutter" spots would be more than neutralized by GOP ads on the air in 73 markets. These ads, part of a $25 million Republican Party blitz, stress the need to both rescue Social Security and cut taxes.
"We're not afraid of Social Security," Crawford said. "There's every indication the vast majority of the public is where we are on this. . . . The scare tactics the Democrats are trying won't work because they're not credible."
Credible or not, Republicans have been forced to defend themselves. Rep. Anne Northup (Ky.) is among those targeted by the AFL-CIO, which said in an ad: "Shouldn't we save the Social Security surplus, to strengthen Social Security? Most Americans say yes. But Newt Gingrich says no. And last month, Representative Anne Northup voted with Gingrich. . . ."
Northup responded with this commercial: "When President Clinton said save Social Security first, he asked Congress to set aside $680 billion for the program. We did better. We dedicated more than twice that amount, $1.4 trillion. . . . Your Social Security is safer than it's been in 25 years."
In this overheated environment, the charges and countercharges often turn on semantics. Milburn, the aide to Ohio's Lt. Gov. Hollister, said flatly that "Nancy's against privatization." But Rep. Strickland's staff obtained a campaign mailing in which Hollister says she "supports allowing workers to invest a portion of their payroll tax in private accounts, which they manage."
The rhetoric has been ratcheted up further in Mississippi, where GOP House candidate Delbert Hosemann accuses state transportation commissioner Ronnie Shows (D) of trying to "bankrupt Social Security, and he's even suggested killing cost-of-living adjustments." Shows responds in his own ad that Hosemann "wants to hide his plan to let Wall Street investors gamble our Social Security on risky stock market schemes . . . Wall Street investors, making millions risking our future."
The recent volatility in stock prices has given Democrats a strategic opening. "If the stock market was booming, we wouldn't be getting as much traction on the privatizing Social Security issue," said Olivia Morgan of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Perhaps the most emotional response came from Indiana state Sen. Jean Leising (R), who said she is "very angry" over ads by her opponent for the open House seat, Democrat Baron Hill, charging her with putting Social Security at risk.
Leising said she was widowed at 21 and had to rely on Social Security survivors' benefits to support her children. She said she wanted only to give younger workers the option of investing part of their retirement savings. "If there is a candidate running that understands the importance of Social Security, it's Jean Leising . . . Anybody that knows us well knows that I would be the last person to hurt Social Security," she said.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company