WASHINGTON -- In what may be the first major move of the forthcoming Social Security debate, the Peterson Foundation launched on Tuesday a $20 million TV ad campaign to promote the need for a major discussion on debt and deficit reduction.
Titled "OweNo," the campaign, which promotes a mock presidential candidate irreverently named Hugh Jidette (get it? Huge debt), doesn't take on Social Security reform directly. But the connections are fairly obvious and it has the program's defenders deeply wary about being outgunned. The Peterson Foundation, for one, has never shied away from its push to reform the entitlement program. And in introducing the $20 million effort, the organization's founder, former Nixon commerce secretary and fiscal conservative Pete Peterson made it abundantly clear that Social Security is in his sights.
"Solving our fiscal issues without fundamental entitlement reform is a statistical impossibility," he said. "Entitlement reform must provide benefits for the most vulnerable. But if we wait too long to reform and we confront a crisis, the politics may become brutal and even violent and in such a situation there would be no assurance that the safety net, even for the most vulnerable, might not be seriously frayed."
Perhaps the most frightening part of the unveiling, however, is that Peterson -- long a scourge of progressives for having earned hundreds of millions in the hedge fund business while preaching financial sacrifice for others -- has prominent Democrats backing his latest campaign. Appearing alongside him at the Newsuem on Tuesday morning was outgoing Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Budget Committee Chair Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
"People on the left who don't want to touch entitlements, that is just unrealistic," said Conrad. "I would say to my friends on the left it is unrealistic, Medicare and Social Security are headed for insolvency. The idea that nothing has to be done is divorced from reality. On the right, those who say no new revenue, I believe, are also in denial."
"The election a week ago today would have been a lot more edifying if we had more commercials like that then the ones running out there in the various states," Bayh said of the ad campaign. "Very impressive."
The remark from Conrad carries additional resonance because of the senator's position on the presidential-appointed deficit commission. He is, in the end, just one of 18 members. But he's a Democratic member. And his open embrace of tackling Social Security reform -- even if it's on the margins -- gives a telling indication as to where the commission's conversation on entitlement reform is heading.
An equally telling aspect of the Peterson Foundation effort is the price tag. Twenty million dollars is a hefty sum for issue advocacy. And as witnessed during the health care reform debate, ad expenditures do have the capacity to frame public opinion so long as they're not counteracted with effective pushback. The Peterson Foundation's resources won't be matched by the other side of the ideological divide, which notes that Social Security not only survived the most recent crash just fine but will also be paying full benefits through 2037 (and 75-percent benefits for 100 years after that).
The OweNo campaign will appear on national television during the Sunday news shows, cable programs, online, and on select billboards. It will also cater to two specific markets: Denver and Columbus. And while those two cities may seem like random choices, it's worth noting that on Tuesday morning, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), fresh off a close election win, argued that it is time for a "conversation" on Social Security reform.