Lost in the cacophony of post-election analysis were the implications of what November 5th means for the future of Social Security reform. Despite all the media stories about Republicans running away from the Social Security issue and avoiding the word "privatization," there was some very good news: Democrats' scare tactics are wearing thin.
While exit poll results (increasingly suspect) suggest that voters concerned with Social Security still favor Democrats, the actual election results tell a more nuanced tale. The tale starts in South Dakota, were GOP nominee for Senate, John Thune, muddled his Social Security position. He even went so far as to accuse incumbent Democrat, Tim Johnson, of being the one who wanted to "privatize" Social Security. Barring a recount miracle, it appears that Thune has lost by about 500 votes.
Compare that to Senate candidates Jim Talent (Missouri), John Sununu (New Hampshire), and House candidate and incumbent Jim Leach (Iowa). Each won by relatively small margins of 1%, 4%, and 6%, respectively. Although none of them made reform a prominent issue in his campaign, none of them ever backed away from personal accounts as an option for younger workers. Despite being attacked with a flurry of Democratic ads, both Sununu and Talent maintained their positions in support of reform. Leach's opponent, Julie Thomas, made news when she signed an AFL-CIO pledge against privatizing Social Security. Despite this, Leach insisted in a televised debate he was open to the option of personal accounts.
Next consider the two candidates who made reform a major issue in their campaigns. One was North Carolina Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole, who discussed the issue often at campaign stops. The other was Rep. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania's 15th district. In a district with a heavy elderly population, Toomey made personal accounts a centerpiece of his campaign, resulting in a feature about him on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. These two candidates had even larger victory margins. Elizabeth Dole won by 9%, and Toomey won by 14%, his biggest margin to date.
So why did Republicans who stuck by their guns do so well? A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll provides an important clue. The poll does show that support for personal accounts has waned, from 63% in April 2002 to 52% in September. However, an even larger majority is worried about the current system. A full 67% either say it is in a "crisis" or faces "major problems." Even for the 65-and-older cohort, the number is a substantial 43%. That is little changed from December 1998. So while support for reform fluctuates, anxiety about the current system persists.
Enter into this picture the Democrats who have nothing more to offer than scare tactics and nice-sounding fluff like "shoring up the Social Security Trust Fund." Thus, voters find no answers about their concerns with the current system among Democrats. This leaves them no alternative but the Republicans, or at least those Republicans willing to stand up for reform. Voters may not be enthusiastic about personal accounts. But they aren't willing to punish candidates who propose them because it is better than candidates who propose nothing.
Before reform proponents get too excited, they must realize that Tuesday's results only mean that the Democrats' scare tactics have lost much of their sting. The results do not mean that voters are sold on the idea of personal accounts. They aren't. There is a long and arduous battle to be fought before that day comes. But reform proponents can take some heart, for in the coming battle the opposition no longer has one of its biggest weapons.
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