Messaging Social Security

The Washington Examiner’s Chris Stirewalt correctly writes today that Republican lawmakers have to craft a better, pro-active message to take advantage of voter disillusionment this year.  Townhall’s Maggie Gallagher throws a wet blanket on an issue that gets many on the right-of-center side excited: Social Security reform.

Gallagher claims that any effort to include an overhaul of social security into the talking points would meet with utter doom, citing President Bush’s failed 2005 effort as evidence that the American people are not on board with the concept:

[P]olls showed the more he talked, the less Americans liked it… “Three months after President Bush launched his drive to restructure Social Security by creating private investment accounts, public support for his program remains weak, with only 35 percent of Americans now saying they approve of his handling of the issue, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll,” The Washington Post reported on March 15, 2005. “Moreover, 58 percent of those polled this time said the more they hear about Bush’s plan, the less they like it.”

And this was before the stock market crashed, and ordinary people at or nearing the age of retirement lost huge chunks of their investment portfolios. Yet in 2010, one of the GOP’s bright young stars, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, pulled together a deficit reduction plan that called once again for the partial privatization of Social Security, and leading conservatives piled on the praise.

Gallagher may be right that Social Security is a difficult election year, but it isn’t impossible.  Entitlement reform is tricky, with demagoguery from parties who feel they will be injured.  But remember that the American people were for Social Security reform before they were against it.  And entitlement reform will have much better traction in the current political environment if properly framed

Bush’s mistake in 2005 was that he was left vulnerable to a coalition of labor and senior voices.  The effort to make the necessary reforms will need a few new messages and strategies, such as:

  • Accurately positioning reform as the creation of the retirement system of the future, versus the retirement system of 1930.
  • Appeals to seniors that promising to protect their benefits while allow their children and grandchildren more freedom for their own retirement.
  • Engagement of young (age 22-35) members of the work force, who have the most to lose from a government-run retirement plan.
  • Tracking and satirizing Democrat, union, and AARP efforts to smear the plan.
  • Putting a real face on the people who stand to benefit from reform.

Gallagher is dead-on, however, in identifying Social Security as a probable Democratic talking point in 2010 (why stop now, after all?).  It has already started in the Nevada Senate race.  The need to counter this messaging is critical for Republicans.

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