Facing a historically difficult electoral landscape, Democratic leadership is planning to reconfigure its message by focusing on what the election could mean for the future of Social Security.
Top officials insist that among all the issues they've tested with voters, the one that yields the best results for the party is a pledge to protect the retirement program from privatization. And with the economy in the midst of a slow but painful recovery, health care reform still largely a mixed bag in terms of popularity, and an unpopular war in Afghanistan, Social Security has climbed to the top of the list of conversation topics out of both expediency and necessity.
"All of the information I've seen, and I've seen some of the national polling data and some in local districts as well, show that people are... extremely nervous about privatizing Social Security," said Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "And they are worried that that's what Republicans intend to do. They tried it once... and it is a major plank in the road map that was set forth by their point person on the budget committee, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.)."
In an interview with the Huffington Post, the Maryland Democrat said he is taking his cues from the debate that Democrats successfully argued during the turn of George W. Bush's second term. "The fact is that the American people soundly rejected the Bush privatization proposal," said Van Hollen. "The events of the past 18 months underscore what kind of economic devastation would have been caused to seniors."
This week alone, Democrats are set to host 100 town halls centered on keeping Social Security intact. And they're putting together TV advertisements to air against Republican lawmakers who have supported privatization.
But in a small wrinkle to the intensified campaign, Democratic lawmakers have also suggested in various forms that the time has come for a serious discussion on raising the retirement age at which Social Security benefits will be paid out. And it hasn't been just fringe members or fiscal conservatives -- leadership figures like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) have suggested as much. Pressed about the potential for a muddled or mixed message, Van Hollen stressed the party's commitment to keeping the retirement age in place.
"The consensus position in the caucus is we can preserve the existing structure of Social Security including the retirement age," said the Maryland Democrat. "And that is where we are. Obviously, people have, whenever they talk about the issue, there are different ideas. But it was very clear from the statements that we made as the Democratic caucus on the front steps of the Capitol that we believe that we should not be changing the retirement age."
Asked specifically what he would do should the president's deficit commission report back that cuts to Social Security or modifications to the program are needed to keep it solvent, Van Hollen only said that lawmakers will cross that bridge when they get there.
The chairman's discussion of the Social Security debate to come was timed in part to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the entitle program's passage. But the renewed focus has been designed to last well beyond the ceremonial hook. On Thursday morning, the influential Democratic polling firm Democracy Corps released new findings that echoed and amplified Van Hollen's point. The firm found that 68 percent of respondents responded favorable to a message that: "The federal deficit is a big national problem but we should not make major spending cuts in Social Security or Medicare." Only 28 percent favored the idea that the federal deficit is such a national problem that we have to cut spending broadly including possible future cuts to Social Security and Medicare."
It's a finding that cuts against the grain of conventional wisdom, argued Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster behind the findings. But it's also a politically potent argument to make in 2010.
"When people worry about the debt, this is not necessarily an ideological posture in the sense of anti-spending," Greenberg said on a conference call Thursday morning. "What they're worried is that it has economic consequences for jobs and affects the ability to meet obligations for the government on jobs and Social Security."
With reporting by Jeremy Binckes