Grandma Doesn’t Scare Anymore

Soon to be former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt was prescient about one thing this election year: In September he predicted that last week’s results would be “a referendum on Social Security.” It was, and the reformers won.

For the second straight election. Running on personal retirement accounts didn’t hurt George W. Bush in 2000, and this year it didn’t hurt those stalwart Congressional candidates willing to campaign on the idea despite economic anxiety and corporate scandals. Maybe it’s time for Democrats to realize they aren’t going to win back their majorities by recycling their scare-Grandma campaigns from 1964. That’s what they and their labor allies tried this year, to little avail.

Take New Hampshire, where a Big Labor front called Campaign for America’s Future assailed GOP Senate candidate John Sununu. One TV spot showed Mr. Sununu, in a beard and dark glasses, hiding behind a bush and hauling Social Security money in brown bags to “gamble on the stock market.” Mr. Sununu fought back, stressing that young workers would have a choice of participating in individual accounts, and saying “we shouldn’t be afraid of ideas.” He won.

We wrote before the election about Elizabeth Dole’s fortitude in defending private accounts against former Clintonite Erskine Bowles; she won going away. But no fewer than 27 winning candidates signed a Citizens for a Sound Economy pledge to support personal retirement accounts as part of Social Security reform. (They include 26 Republicans, plus Texas Democrat Ralph Hall.) Another 16 GOP signers of a pledge from the pro-reform Social Security also prevailed. Winning Senate pledge signers include Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, Norm Coleman in Minnesota and John Cornyn in Texas.

Notably, the “pledge” strategy didn’t work in reverse, even in Florida’s Gold Coast district, where more than 42% of registered voters are age 55 or older. Democrat Carol Roberts signed a pledge from Campaign for America’s Future to “protect” Social Security (that is, do nothing) and challenged Republican Representative Clay Shaw to do the same. But Mr. Shaw, who won by only 599 votes in 2000, refused and won with 60% of the vote this time.

It’s also noteworthy that the rare GOP losers last week included some who deliberately ran away from Social Security reform. In Pennsylvania, George Gekas signed the anti-reform pledge, but his opponent still pounded him and he lost anyway. Meanwhile, John Thune’s strategy of attacking Democrat Tim Johnson for once supporting “privatization” didn’t put him over the top in South Dakota.

To be sure, this year’s campaign was dominated by the war on terror and the economy. But that’s part of our point. As the Democratic Leadership Council has noted, Democrats campaigned this year as if seniors were the only voters and all they cared about were their own pensions and prescription drugs.

Seniors are patriots too, however, and most of them have grandchildren they’d like to see inherit a working Social Security system as well. They’re willing to listen to politicians who tell them the truth about the system’s long term problems and how to fix them. An election day survey by Public Opinion Strategies found that Republicans carried the senior vote comfortably this year.

Much has been made of the fact that many Republicans abandoned the word “privatization” during the campaign. We wish they hadn’t done that, too, but that doesn’t mean they were dishonest. No Republican to the left of Texas libertarian Ron Paul has proposed anything like privatization.

What they’ve endorsed is the voluntary right to take a portion of the payroll tax and invest it in stocks or bonds. Individuals would get a property right, which means they could pass assets down to their heirs if they died young, but they wouldn’t be able to spend those assets as they would under a truly private system. Above all, their investment returns wouldn’t be subject to the whim of politicians, who could decide at any moment to cut their benefits.

The lesson for the future is that Republicans are in a strong position to promote Social Security reform in the next Congress. While they may not pass it given the 60 votes needed to get through the Senate, they can continue to educate the public and frame the debate for 2004.

For his part, Mr. Bush isn’t backing down. He used his post-election press conference last week to reassert that, “I still strongly believe that the best way to achieve security in Social Security for younger workers is to give them the option of managing their own money through a personal savings account.”

White House Chief of Staff Andy Card was less coherent on the subject this weekend, as he often is. But we take it Mr. Bush is the higher authority, and he and his fellow reformers now have two election victories showing that the voters agree with them.