- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

In a city where perception is currency, the "political capital" bank accounts of Social Security reform advocates just got a little fatter. While Congress won't pass final legislation next year, the tectonic plates shifted last month, crumbling the false facades of those who demagogue the issue. Historians will note the 2002 midterm elections provided a sharp boost for reform and represented a key turning point in the debate.
Major public-policy change in Washington requires constant vigilance and takes years to achieve, moving sometimes at a glacier-like pace. But, circumstances also prod the process along; astute analysts can track these near-imperceptible shifts and know when they occur. The elections left many Capitol Hill veterans believing the goal of Social Security reform just moved one step closer to reality, but more heavy lifting lies ahead.
Evidence of the shifting political winds comes from a variety of directions. First, consider the depth of public support. Even though the stock market experienced a significant decline over the past two years, a majority of Americans still support Social Security reforms utilizing some form of private accounts. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in November, 57 percent of adults supported "allowing people to put a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts that could be invested in private stocks and bonds." A Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters in November also found 57 percent supported providing a choice in how to invest Social Security funds.
Indeed, support for private accounts declined during the tempestuous market conditions of the last two years, hitting a low of about 52 percent in July 2002, corresponding with the two-year dip in the stock market. But the numbers bounced back over the last four months as the market recovered ground. The surprising result is the enduring support for reform, which never dropped below a clear majority in the last two years.
Success in rebutting political attacks on Social Security also heartened reform advocates. Ironically, members of Congress most vulnerable on the issue were the strongest supporters of reform in the 2002 elections. Incumbents such as Anne Northup and Pat Toomey were pummeled by false attacks on the issue. Instead of walking away from reform, these incumbents faced it head on and won. Insiders argue that, if vulnerable members can withstand the pressure of scare tactics, convincing legislators from safe districts to support reform should be an easier sell.
"Next, we need to teach some of our more senior members from safer districts that the politics of Social Security have changed," volunteers a White House aide involved in the reform effort. "Members in safe districts still think it's some untouchable issue because they have not been forced to learn about it, unlike some of our more vulnerable members."
Finally, time and demographics caught up with the Democrats in 2002. As a tactical matter, scaring people about Social Security used to work. But as reform advocates educated the public about the changing nature of Social Security, "doing nothing" became an equally "scary" option. Many now realize that unless we boost the rate of return, the entire system will collapse, leaving everyone in the lurch.
Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and his lieutenants at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee bet the ranch that this election would be a referendum on Social Security. Their ranch went bust.
Yet, despite an improved climate for reform, advocates know there's still a lot of work ahead. "We're in round 10 of a 15-round bout," one House leadership aide said. "But we finally won a round!" Reform advocates need to continue the fight in a couple of areas. First, while a clear majority supports the use of private accounts, opposition still runs between 35 percent to 40 percent. Reducing that number so support for reform becomes a 70 percent to 30 percent issue in the electorate, is key. Continued public education is critical on this front.
Second, reform advocates need one more election cycle, focusing on educating those members who have not squarely faced the issue. As one House leadership aide said, "Not all of our members are as articulate about the issue as the president. We need to work on that."
Democrats burned a bridge that historically carried them to political safety in this midterm elections; they probably can't cross it again. Simply preaching fear and defending the status quo turned out to be riskier than advocating reform. Republicans learned that Social Security reform ideas actually resonated with voters. If President Bush is re-elected in 2004 and reform advocates follow the steps outlined above overhauling the government's largest social program will move from think-tank policy papers to the law of the land.

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