Monday, February 07, 2005

The Home Front - State Parties on Social Security: The Democrats

The fight over the future of Social Security is where we learn if the Democratic Party has the will or the wherewithal to fight the Republicans on anything. I am not talking about the DNC, however. I am talking about the home front: your home and mine.

The vote on the future of Social Security will take place in Washington, D.C., but the president and his army of privatizers know that the campaign will be fought in the hearts and minds of the American people. They also know that if the constituents of Social Security understand precisely what the president is trying to do, Bush's plan to alter the fundamental nature of the program is dead on arrival.

Every lawmaker, Democrat and Republican, is acutely aware of the potential for personal political disaster in this fight. The campaign commercials practically write themselves:

"Richard Muckman says he supports working families. But, when Richard Muckman had a chance to protect your Social Security benefits... or to give billions of dollars to the president's stock broker friends on Wall Street... he chose Wall Street (CUE: 'Greed is Good' clip from Oliver Stone's Wall Street). On election day, let Richard Muckman know... if he won't support working families... we won't support him."

This is why the privatizers resort to rhetorical tricks. "Privatization" becomes "private accounts" becomes "personal retirement accounts," and so on. This is why they come up with a manual to teach Republican politicians how to imply that they want to protect Social Security while they are really on an ideological crusade to destroy a government program many of them feel should never have been born in the first place.

This is also why Bush has taken his show on the road, with a special Social Security edition of his "Ask the President" tour from the 2004 campaign. He stands on a stage in his blue window-pane check shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a mic in his hand. Standing next to him is a telegenic 26-year old guy who says he knows Social Security won't be there for him when he retires. He wants the opportunity to invest his own money, make his own decisions, earn his own retirement nest egg. This is powerful imagery. Local newspapers and TV stations are hard-pressed to place the story of the president's appearances anywhere but on the front page or in the first block of the 5 o'clock news.

There is not much that the national organizations opposing the president's plan can do to counter his pitch on the state and local stage. The logistics, to say nothing of the cost, are prohibitive. Local news coverage is the cheapest airtime there is, and Bush knows that. Certainly, local groups and ordinary citizens can try to get a soundbite on the air, but the Secret Service keeps protesters literally miles away from Great Leader's public appearances. Many observers think that this is because Himself does not like to be confronted with opposition. In fact, he does seem to possess this aversion, but the real advantage in keeping protesters in another zip code is that it makes it much harder for local news crews to get the "anti-" sound bite in the story. When the president is speaking at 11:00 a.m., and you're on live at noon, that means your live truck is parked outside the auditorium where he is speaking. As a TV reporter, you do not have the time to drive across town, find an articulate protester (harder than you can possibly imagine, unless you've done it), get back in time to write and edit your story, feed it back to the station and get on the air for noon. So, you go with what you have: pool video of Bush saying that Social Security will be "flat-bust" in as little twenty years. Bush has learned from experience that, even if he is lying, the more he repeats the lie, preferably unchallenged, the more it is accepted as the truth.

With national groups and ordinary citizens effectively out of the game, who is left to champion the opposition viewpoint? During the Clinton Administration, it was often local Republican parties. They were loud and proud. They sent blanket FAXes to newspapers and TV stations. They turned out en masse at his public appearances. If he had tried to keep them and their picket signs across town, they would have filed suit in federal court.

Where, then, are the Democrats as Republican ideologues lay siege to the signature accomplishment of The New Deal?

Many individual Democratic lawmakers find themselves unable even to articulate a position on Bush's Social Security plan, pro or con. Rightly or wrongly, they fear that opposing Bush will place a target on their backs in 2006. Frankly, I think they are wrong. If ever there was an issue upon which to take an uncompromising partisan stand, this is it. Bush has no mandate for dismantling Social Security. He didn't even campaign on it. If he had, John Kerry would be president today. Be that as it may, we must accept the faintheartedness of our elected politicians for what it is.

Which leaves the state chapters of the Democratic Party. The battle to save Social Security presents Democrats with a golden opportunity to draw a sharp distinction between themselves and the Republicans. They have only to summon the courage to do so. Some, like the party in my home state, have made no public statements and have no information about the issue on their websites. Of course, the Louisiana Democratic Party is the one whose new Chairman says the state does not need a Democratic agenda, but that it needs a Louisiana Agenda. No one should expect much support from such a group (well, maybe the Republicans could). Others have made unequivocal statements opposing any effort to destroy Social Security. There is no way of knowing what kind of resources they are willing or able to devote to the fight to save Social Security, but it is encouraging to know that there are those who are at least willing to state what they believe.

Here, then, is a list (including excerpts and, in some cases, commentary) of state Democratic parties across the country who have placed statements about Social Security on their websites. I have not included links to statements posted on the DNC website, the official websites of any state's representatives in Washington, D.C. or clippings of news articles. I am interested only in position statements or press releases available on the websites of the Democratic Party's state chapters.


"The President’s plan to offer “voluntary” private accounts would divert at least $700 billion out of the Social Security trust fund, according to a Bush Administration official [The Washington Post, 2/3/05], saddling our children and grandchildren with an expanding mountain of George W. Bush-created debt.

What the President didn’t mention during his speech is that the Bush White House has floated plans to cut benefits by 25 percent to 45 percent regardless of whether a worker opts into Bush’s risky privatization scheme. [Economic Report of the President 2004; Contributions to Economic Analysis & Policy, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2002; The Washington Post, 1/4/05; Congressional Budget Office]"


"The Bush Plan with its potential reduction of benefits for retirees and its roulette wheel for younger Americans is profoundly troubling."


A talking points guide to countering GOP spin:

"He is bringing the fight to our front door and it is up to us to make it loud and clear that we will not tolerate Republicans mortgaging our future for their political gain.

Talk about Social Security in Florida: Florida is home to six out of the 10 congressional districts with the largest number of Social Security beneficiaries in the country. Five out of six of those districts have Republican Congressmen or Congresswomen.

* Social Security is the main income source for nine out of 10 seniors, age 65 and older . Without Social Security, more than 50 percent of our seniors would be living in poverty.

* Total Number of Social Security Beneficiaries (includes Old Age/Retirement, Survivors and Disability) in Florida is 3,331,012. This includes: 2,256,202 Retired workers, 360,685 Disabled Workers 229,974 Children and 2,475,191 Over 65.

Talk about President's attack on Social Security:

* Bush's Social Security plan would cost $2 trillion in the next decade and still cut benefits by 25 to 45 percent regardless of whether a worker opts in or not.

* Under Bush's system, the gains may be minimal ...If a worker sets aside $1,000 a year for 40 years, and earns 4 percent annually on investments, the account would grow to $99,800 in today's dollars, but the government would keep $78,700 -- or about 80 percent of the account . The remainder, $21,100, would be the worker's.

Talk about what Democrats are doing:

* Democrats want to ensure that Social Security benefits continue to be guaranteed

* Democrats want to save, strengthen, and secure Social Security.

For more information, see below and don’t forget to spread the word."

Go, Florida! You guys ROCK!


Appears to be a blog posting of a party position statement:

"Democrats are Fighting to Save, Strengthen and Secure Social Security

The Republican privatization proposal hurts everyone, including today’s beneficiaries. Privatization would take approximately $2 trillion from Social Security in just the next decade, endangering the benefits of current retirees and people with disabilities and would directly cut benefits by almost 50 percent for future generations. President Bush’s Commission came up with three different proposals to privatize Social Security, and every one of these proposals cut Social Security’s guaranteed benefits – even for people who decide not to set up a private account.

Social Security faces a challenge, not a crisis. Republicans are scaring younger workers about Social Security’s solvency..."


"Privatization would take approximately $2 trillion from Social Security in the next decade, endangering the benefits of current retirees and people with disabilities. Privatization would directly cut benefits by almost 50 percent for future generations."


A statement from U.S. Senator Carl Levin:

"... if we privatize Social Security, we would introduce gambling into the system: there will be winners, and there will be losers. Social Security would no longer be a guarantee for all Americans, but a jackpot for the lucky. For the first time in 70 years, we would fail to keep our pact with all of the American people."


A call to action:

1. Call Senator Norm Coleman and tell him not to gamble our Social Security on risky privatization schemes. Call Coleman’s office at 800-642-6041. Norm Coleman votes with Bush 92% of the time and has said he supports privatizing Social Security.

2. Call George Bush and tell him not to gamble our Social Security on risky privatization schemes. Call Bush at 202-456-1111 or 202-456-6213.

3. Click here to register your call as part of our “Official DFL Call Count” so your voice is counted in our official tally of this important grassroots campaign!


"LINCOLN, NE – In response to the Bush administration’s recent proposal to privatize America’s most successful retirement program, the Nebraska Democratic Party released the following statement:

'The Nebraska Democratic Party flatly opposes privatizing Social Security. Privatizing our country’s most successful government program will not only pad the pockets of securities dealers, but also expose future benefits of our seniors to the volatility of stock market,' said Steve Achelpohl, Nebraska Democratic Party Chair."


"... this is just the first step of the Republican Party's plan to dismantle the entire Social Security system that has kept generations of America's seniors out of poverty. Soon Bush will launch a $40 million TV ad blitz to convince Americans that our grandkids will be left out in the cold if Social Security is not privatized.

We will not stand by and allow that to happen (emphasis added)."

The online release goes on to urge readers to write letters-to-the-editor of their local papers in opposition to Bush's plan. It links to a letter template on the DNC website.


A postion paper by N.J. Congressman Steven Rothman:

"... with all this talk about Social Security, it is important to remember not only the tangible, dollar benefits that our existing program provides all Americans. In fact, one can reasonably argue that the existence of our Social Security system gives investors of all kinds the peace of mind in knowing that – despite the risks they’re willing to take with the rest of their income – their Social Security retirement benefits are guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the United States of America."


From a press release criticizing Republican Rep. Heather Wilson:

"Social Security is not a retirement savings plan; it is a social insurance program -- a contractual promise. When Social Security was first enacted in 1935, almost half of America’s seniors were living in poverty. That number is down to just over 10%. Nearly half of the U.S. population over 65 would be living in poverty without Social Security.

The Bush Administration, however, is eager to divert Social Security funds and payroll taxes to Wall Street bankers, who represent some of the largest Republican campaign contributors. Privatizing Social Security does nothing to address the shortfall, but rather, depends on severe cuts in benefits to pay for it. The Bush Administration has also falsely represented the condition of Social Security, injecting false fear into public discourse, much as was done during the presidential campaign."


From the state party chairman's response to the SOTU:

"'Tonight George Bush launched his campaign to dismantle Social Security and Democrats stand ready to defeat it,' said New York State Democratic Committee Chair Herman “Denny” Farrell, Jr. 'From the time President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law nearly 70 years ago, Republicans have opposed it. Their current attempt to end Social Security comes in the form of George Bush’s privatization scheme, which would cut Social Security’s guaranteed benefits and undermine the only secure and stable source of retirement income for millions of Americans.'"


A press release from September, 2004(!):

"Bush's Plan for Social Security 'Rips Off' North Carolina Seniors

Raleigh - Today in Florida, John Kerry is laying out a bold new plan to shore up Social Security. This stands in stark contrast to the privatization scheme proposed by George W. Bush.


From a January 12 press release posted online:

(FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA) --- U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) told seniors at the Fargo Senior Commission Wednesday that creating private accounts in the Social Security system will cut the guaranteed retirement benefit North Dakotans and all Americans have come to count on and effectively “take the security out of Social Security.”

“The President says there is a crisis in the Social Security system. There isn’t,” Dorgan said. “People are living longer, healthier lives and the Social Security system will need some adjustments to keep it solvent for the long term. But that doesn’t require major policy changes, and it certainly doesn’t justify taking this core retirement insurance program apart as the President suggests.”


The next-to-last paragraph of what appears to be the OK State Democratic Party Mission Statement:

"Democrats have overcome severe Republican opposition to several programs which are now vital cornerstones of many American households on fixed incomes, including Social Security and Medicare. Democrats pride themselves on fulfilling promises made to our seniors, veterans and children. We refuse to believe that corporate interests outweigh the interests of our families. However, we are, as always, ready to examine every solution government has attempted to see if it is working – and to take a different course when one is dictated by reason."

Not exactly a declaration of war against the privatizers.


Social Security changes cost $2 Trillion

(Nashville, Tenn.) - Similar to his former State of the Union address when he sold the Iraq war to the American people, President Bush is at it again in an attempt to sell his attack on Social Security. The Administration’s new plan breaks the Social Security guarantee that Americans have benefited from for 70 years. Part of the President’sales [sic] job calls for a privatization of the system that gambles with the life savings of American workers.


From a PDF file of the party platform:

• Social Security
o a separate and dedicated Social Security Trust Fund;
o maintenance of disabled and dependent survivor Social Security benefits.

It's nice to see it in writing, but this hardly amounts to a line drawn in the sand.


There you have it - 17 of 51 state Democratic Party chapters which have bothered to articulate (or, at least, post) a position statement on President Bush's plan to dismantle Social Security. If you don't see your state's party on this list, you might call or write to ask what their position is and why they have not seen fit to make it public.

In a future post, we will survey state Republican Party websites to see how conspicuous they are willing to be in support of the president's plan to phase out Social Security.