Political Hay

The Third Rail Unplugged

Candidates need to study Marco Rubio's Social Security playbook.

By 9.14.11

Send to Kindle

TAMPA -- For decades now political consultants, especially those of the Florida sub-species, have been able to charge big bucks to advise Republican candidates not to say anything about Social Security during campaigns. It's the "third rail" of politics, they breathlessly warn. Touch it and your political career goes up in smoke.

On the other side, consultants have cashed in advising Democrats to attack all Republican candidates on Social Security, early and often -- to charge that these heartless villains are constantly conniving to snatch your widowed mother's Social Security check from her arthritic fingers, regardless of what these candidates have really said or done on this issue. The Democrats' court eunuchs in the main(left)-stream media have been happy enough act as megaphones for this scam. 

This strategy -- duck and cover on one side, Big Lie on the other -- enjoyed some plausibility for the longest time. Countless candidates over the years found that just mentioning the words "Social Security" in Florida lost them more votes than mentioning the word "education" gained them. After all, Florida has the highest percentage of residents aged 65 or over -- 17.4 percent -- of any state. (If you must know -- West By-God Virginia is second at 16 percent, Maine third at 15.9. Alaska has the fewest wrinklies at 7.7 percent. I can use that word because I turn 69 next month.)

But then the ideas of Marx, Darwin, and Freud also had some surface plausibility when they were first sprung on an unsuspecting world. And we wasted most of a century taking them seriously. But we've pretty much -- save for in faculty lounges, news rooms, and behind some pulpits -- de-constructed these three quacks. And it's time to unplug the third rail too. A Florida Senate candidate showed us how last year.

The candidate who wrote the new rules for political discussion of Social Security is now U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. He didn't just touch the third rail. He grabbed it. And he wasn't electrocuted.

Rubio pole-axed political consultants and much of the commentariat by saying flat out on national TV, in a debate with his main Senate opponent on Fox News Sunday early in 2010, that Social Security had to be changed or it would go belly-up, more sooner than later, and the checks would stop for all. Rubio made clear than any changes, most likely to include raising the retirement age, would not affect current recipients, or people about to be eligible for Social Security. The changes would only affect folks at least 10 years away from retirement, who have time to plan for the changes. He repeated this message in his campaign throughout Florida.

Then a strange thing didn't happen. Political consultants may have taken to their fainting couches after watching what they were certain was a political suicide on national TV. And political writers shifted into high dudgeon mode. Rubio's opponents used every scare tactic the law allows. But to the surprise of orthodox thinkers everywhere, Florida's seniors did not go into low earth orbit. The promised backlash didn't happen. Rubio won his election by 20 points.

"Marco really cracked the code on how to speak about this issue and how to overcome it," Rubio's Communications Director Alex Burgos told me. "He raised the issue time and time again in national and Florida settings. He was attacked by his opponents on this. Millions of dollars of ads were run against him distorting his position. But Marco was honest about the challenges and solutions facing Social Security and Medicare. The electorate has a very good sense that these programs are going bankrupt and will bankrupt the country if nothing is done to reform them for younger people."

The what-to-do hasn't been established -- though almost certainly they will have to involve raising the retirement age at some point and fine-tuning the way benefits are calculated. But a retirement plan that in its early stages had more than forty workers paying into it for every retiree being supported, and thanks to changing demographics now has only three workers supporting one retiree (and is looking down the barrel of a retiring Baby Boom generation), cannot continue without being changed.

Voters get this, even those without PhDs in arithmetic. The numbers just no longer work. For many Social Security recipients the worry has shifted from how much of a raise they will receive in their benefits next year to will their children ever receive anything at all.

Some of the scrutiny is shifting from candidates who point out that the system needs reforming to politicians who defend Social Security as it stands. If the status remains quo for Social Security, today's 40-somethings will outlive the system. More and more Americans are figuring this out. The time is coming, perhaps it's already here, when those who accuse anyone talking about reforming Social Security of trying to destroy it no longer get a free pass.

Though Social Security can, and must, be honestly discussed if the country is to avoid spending itself into oblivion, Rick Perry has found it's not useful to refer to the still popular retirement plan as a Ponzi scheme. OK, the way the system operates today it shares many Ponzi characteristics, i.e., not enough new members (workers) to pay off the old members (retirees). But we gain nothing by saying this. And nothing was gained from Perry and Mitt Romney's unedifying Monday night exchange on Social Security, much of which didn't rise above the level of, "Nyah, nyah, nyah, your book is dumber than mine."

Instead of arguing over which candidate's book got it most wrong on Social Security, better to spend time studying the Marco Rubio play book on the subject. The facts and the arguments are on the side of Social Security reformers. Candidates are advised to stick with them. They still will be criticized, and their positions distorted, as Rubio's still are. But the tide is clearly turning on this one.  

And don't worry about the poor political consultants. They'll have to replace the part of their gravy train that has been fed by the Social Security third rail gambit. It won't be easy. But these are bright and resourceful people. If you don't think so, just ask them.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.