- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

Republicans intend to keep their distance from the White House commission's Social Security reforms, fearing that Democrats will turn them into a deadly political weapon in next year's elections, GOP strategists said yesterday.

Republican leaders have been largely silent about the reform proposals that President Bush's 16-member commission unanimously approved on Tuesday. But Democratic campaign officials were quick to denounce the panel's recommendations, which they said would "cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age" demonstrating that the proposals to partially privatize Social Security will be a major campaign issue in the midterm congressional races.

"The 2002 election may answer whether Social Security is still the third rail of American politics," said Bill Buck, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

"Where Republican candidates and incumbents endorse plans that will cut benefits, they will do so at their own peril," said Kim Rubey, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republican officials yesterday said they expected the Democrats to demagogue the Social Security reform issue, as they have in the past, in an attempt to frighten the elderly and others into voting for the Democratic Party next November. And for that reason, some of the Republican Party's top strategists said they were advising GOP candidates to keep the commission's proposals at arm's length.

"The Republican candidates are not going to be buying a lot of stock in the commission's report. It's the commission's job to be defending the report, not Republican candidates," a high-level Republican campaign strategist said yesterday.

"It's fair to say that these proposals are going to be treated very coldly" by Republicans, the strategist said.

The commission wants to let workers invest a part of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock and bond markets. Mr. Bush, who made the idea a major plank in his campaign for the presidency, was said by many analysts to have shown that it was now safe to talk about partially privatizing Social Security without fear of political harm.

But most of his party's congressional rank and file have been reticent about the president's plan, despite voter polls showing that many Americans like the idea of Social Security investment accounts that they could own and leave to their heirs. And that anxiety surfaced this week.

"Republicans need to talk about private accounts very, very carefully. It's a dangerous issue for Republicans because Democrats are so intent on demagoguing the issue. These are not the president's proposals. They are the commission's proposals," another Republican Party strategist said.

All of the commission's proposals call for allowing workers to invest 2 percent or more of their payroll taxes in the stock market, but one option calls for slowing down the growth in Social Security benefits and encouraging workers to postpone their retirement.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe pounced on that option Tuesday, saying that "the commission proved that the only way to achieve privatization is by cutting guaranteed benefits benefits that senior citizens, survivors and people with disabilities will count on."

But other Republican campaign officials dismissed such scare tactics yesterday, saying that attacks on GOP candidates over the Social Security issue have not worked for the Democrats in recent elections and will fail again next year.

"There's no doubt the Democrats will be demagoguing Social Security reform in the 2002 election by scaring seniors and other voters with untruthful ads, but that is not a successful strategy to put them in the majority and it won't next year," said Steve Schmidt, the National Republican Congressional Committee's director of communications.

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