The Third Rail: What To Do With Social Security?

Painting Republicans as bogeymen who want to privatize sacred entitlement programs, Democrats have turned to Social Security to save them in the coming Midterm election.

"I'll fight with everything I've got to stop those who want to gamble your social security on Wall Street," President Obama said in his weekly video address on Saturday, the 75 anniversary of Social Security's enactment.

Along with Medicare, Social Security remains a sacred cow in American politics and focusing on protecting them is probably good politics for Democrats as they head into the fall elections where Republicans are expected to make big gains.

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But there is political peril in the issue for both parties, especially as the President's bipartisan debt commission considers ways to fix Social Security before it is expected to run out of money in 2037. The commission is mulling several options to keep the entitlement program solvent, including cutting benefits, and raising the retirement age to 70.

Reading the writing on the wall and expecting the commission to recommend some entitlement cuts, a coalition of liberal groups announced a plan this week to confront members of both parties at town hall meetings and prod them to sign a pledge never to cut benefits.

The campaign by activist groups could complicate the issue for national Democrats, who commemorated the 75th anniversary of Social Security on Saturday by hitting hard against Republican candidates who have in the past advocated cutting or privatizing the social safety net.

Another coalition, comprising unions like the AFL-CIO and groups like the NAACP, bases its opposition to any form of social security cuts, on seven principles, according to its website:

"Social Security did not cause the federal deficit; its benefits should not be cut to reduce the deficit," the group's website says.

The focus on protecting social security has already worked to some degree for Democrats. Republicans candidates, many of whom embraced the limited government ideology of the Tea Party during primary runs, have tempered their official rhetoric on the program and recalibrated their positions in favor of protecting social security for the current generation of seniors.

For example Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for Senate in Nevada, has sought to reinvent herself on the issue of social security with a new TV ad, in which she pledges to save the program.

"We have a contract with our seniors, who have put into social security in good faith. I'd like to save social security by locking the lockbox, putting the money back into the trust fund, so the government can no longer raid our retirement," says Angle in the ad, in which she is addressing a group of middle aged and elderly people.

Softening Social Security Rhetoric on the Right

This represents a break from Angle's past comments. Her website used to say that Social Security should be "transitioned out" in favor of "free market alternatives.

But that has been replaced with a markedly different stance.

"We must keep the promise of Social Security by redeeming the 'IOU's' that have been written to the Social Security Trust Fund and then putting that money in a lock box that cannot ever be raided again by Washington politicians. The only way we pay for it is by cutting spending," it now says in the "issues" section.

Talk of a "free market" alternative is replaced with "personalized accounts for the next generation that cannot be raided."

Still, that careful rebranding will be complicated by comments she made Friday, when she apparently referred to Chile as a model for privatizing social security in the future, according to a short AP write-up.

Democrats Hope To Turn Attention From Economy

For their part, Democrats are intent on convincing voters that Republicans want to privatize the whole system.

"Republicans are dead set on privatizing or eliminating Social Security to please their Wall Street backers," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee National Press Secretary Deirdre Murphy." Democrats will continue to stand up for our seniors and call out Republicans who want to leave them high and dry."

Of course, most Republicans do not want to fully privatize social security. And Democrats, by and large, are in search of something to talk about other than the persistently bad economy.

"Democrats are trying to get every republican on the record, pledging something that they can take to seniors to tell them republicans want to or do away with, or privatize social security," said Nathan Gonzales, Political Editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

But he said changing the subject from the economy will be challenging.

"Most voters are concerned about the current economic situation rather than a hypothetical social security situation," he said.

With the President's bipartisan debt reduction commission mulling what changes in the entitlement system to suggest, progressive groups are concerned that the threat to social security from a deficit trimming-Congress is not hypothetical.

Progressive Groups Seek A "No Cuts" Pledge

But for some progressive activists, no change is acceptable.

To proposals of changing the retirement age, they say it would adversely affect blue collar workers. "There is a class bias in that," said Robert Borsage, of the Campaign for America's Future.

"For people who are using their bodies instead of their minds, a lot of them are limping to get to retirement at 62, much less 70," he said.

If the groups are successful in drawing enough Democrats to pledge absolutely no cuts to social security, it could very well confound the President's own debt commission.