08/18/2010 10:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Are Democrats Losing the Social Security Issue?

The Republican Party's attempt to privatize Social Security under George W. Bush was wildly unpopular. At least one Republican Congressional candidate is openly calling for Social Security cuts, and Rep. Paul Ryan's widely-publicized "Roadmap for the Future" includes both privatization and benefit cuts. With all these GOP threats to a popular program, why do polls show that the Democratic Party's advantage on this issue has collapsed?

Here's one reason: Voters want to know that their leaders won't cut Social Security benefits, and not enough Democrats have promised they won't. Some, including the president, are avoiding the issue or changing the subject. Democrats clearly think that Social Security is a winning issue for them, but polls suggest that voters aren't likely to be swayed by declarations that oppose privatization but are vague on benefits.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll tells the story of the Democrats' declining fortunes in Social Security. People who were polled this month only gave Democrats a four-point advantage over Republicans (30%-26%) on the issue of "dealing with Social Security." That's down from the 28-point advantage (48%-20%) they enjoyed in October 2006. Meanwhile, recent polls showed that 68% of people responding oppose cutting Social Security and Medicare to pay for the deficit, including 60% of Republicans.

Voters looking for a clear statement on benefits from the Democratic leadership aren't getting them yet. Instead, Democratic leaders insist on fighting a battle that's not being waged right now: privatization. While Republicans probably would revive this issue if they had the White House and majorities in both Houses, that's not on the table right now. On the battle that is being fought, benefit cuts, statements from the president and other party leaders have been conspicuously silent. As this Greenberg poll shows, politicians that support Social Security cuts will face strong voter backlash.

President Obama's weekly address, on the 75th anniversary of Social Security's creation, was entitled "Honoring Social Security, Not Privatizing It." The address was directed at the issue that's not on the table right now -- privatization -- and offered no assurances for voters on the subject of benefit cuts. And observers won't be reassured by the president's comment that he was "encouraged by the reports of serious bipartisan work being done on this and other issues in the fiscal commission that I set up several months ago." The Democratic and Republican co-chairs of that commission both have a history of advocating benefit cuts, as does economist and commission member Alice Rivlin.

The President chose to cap his remark with the same FDR quote Nancy Pelosi used for the the occasion of Social Security's birthday: That it should provide "some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against poverty-stricken old age." That quote doesn't reassure voters that Democrats will protect their benefits. It suggests, in fact, that "some measure" against poverty is all they intend to provide. That's disturbing, since Social Security keeps 20 million Americans out of poverty. It's also a selective use of FDR's words. In the same speech, Roosevelt went on to say: "This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete ... It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness."

Speaker Pelosi understands the need to take a more unequivocal stand against cutting Social Security benefits than that quote provides. That's why she, along with twelve other Congressional candidates, have taken the pledge to protect Social Security from both privatization and benefit cuts. The Campaign for America's Future will be tracking all candidates to see who's signed the pledge and is offering an online petition to defend Social Security for citizens to sign.

"Today," said President Roosevelt at the birth of Social Security, "a hope of many years' standing is in large part fulfilled." That hope must now be defended from those who would cut or dismantle it. If Democrats want the job, and the political majority that will enable them to do it, they're going to have to be clear about their intentions.


Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""