Monday, July 4, 2005

With Congress ready to start the legislative phase of Social Security reform in the next few weeks, there are signs the Democrats’ “just say no” approach may backfire. Even The Washington Post, no bastion of support for the current occupant of the White House, wrote a recent editorial called “Where Are the Democrats?” asking why the loyal opposition has no Social Security plan of its own.

Despite the confidence displayed by some House Democrat leaders, new polling data indicate voters want action on the issue and are supportive of some new Republican ideas about using projected surpluses to create personal accounts.

Yet some Democrats have a different metric of success. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told Roll Call last week that the Democrat effort to stymie President Bush on Social Security was one of their greatest accomplishments so far this year. Mrs. Pelosi, expressing what is now predictable vitriolic Democratic rhetoric said: “It was important for us to take him down, destroy [Bush’s] brand.” The problem for Mrs. Pelosi and her Democratic allies is most voters are more interested in “strengthening Social Security” than destroying Mr. Bush’s brand.

Those are some of the results of the American Survey conducted by Dutko Research of 800 registered voters, June 21-26.

The flow of the Social Security debate, while not rapid, is following a rational course. First, President Bush tried to convince voters about the nature of the problem. Polling data suggests he succeeded. For example, a Dutko Research late May survey found 81 percent saying Social Security needs change to remain solvent. If a large majority of voters now perceive a problem, it’s logical that voters rank “strengthening Social Security” as the top domestic priority for congressional action.

A February Harris poll shows Social Security became the top domestic issue, moving up sharply from last year following considerable White House attention to the issue. We follow up, putting the Social Security question in the context of other current agenda items, asking voters which issue (from a list of major issues pending in the Congress) was “most important” for lawmakers to address. Other options included establishing an energy policy, finishing spending bills on time and on budget, approving the Central American Free Trade Agreement, making tax cuts permanent, passing medical liability reform and further immigration reform. Forty-two percent of voters picked “strengthening Social Security” as the most important issue for Congress to address, ranking it well above other issues on the list.

No doubt specific legislative proposals on Social Security solvency may not prove as popular ? one person’s definition of “strengthening” may be another’s tax increase or mandate to work longer. But with this perspective in mind, these numbers are still impressive because they demonstrate the importance of the issue compared to other matters pending before the Congress.

Finally, we tested voter reaction to recent discussion about using the Social Security surplus to create personal accounts and found voters supportive (59 percent to 37 percent). Not surprisingly, Republicans are most favorable toward the proposal (76 percent). But a strong majority of independents (62 percent) support this approach, as do 40 percent of self-identified Democrats.

Again, these results might change once the partisan attacks begin, but right now it looks like voters are looking for something more than “destroying the Bush brand” as a way to address the Social Security issue.

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