Battle over Social Security takes on campaign flavor

Associated Press
Published April 3, 2005

WASHINGTON - Just five months after the presidential election, Democratic lawmakers are traveling throughout the country to campaign anew against President Bush and his agenda.

This time, though, the stakes are the future of Social Security, not control of the White House.

The battle over "strengthening Social Security," as the White House calls it, has renewed the conflict between many of the same people and organizations that clashed in November.

The liberal online groupMoveOn.org, labor unions, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several umbrella organizations are back at it, arguing for and against Bush's proposed personal investment accounts for Social Security.

They are using many of the same campaign tactics: apocalyptic television ads - in one case recalling the Titanic hitting an iceberg; boisterous town hall meetings; mass e-mails to reporters.

Among those involved are activists associated with the Swift Boat group, which attacked the Vietnam War record of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, and top officials who worked last year with the Democrats competing for the right to unseat Bush.

"The president is running a presidential-style campaign on this," said Erik Smith, who advised former Rep. Dick Gephardt when the Missouri Democrat sought his party's presidential nomination.

Today, Smith is preparing antiprivatization ads along with Jim Jordan, Kerry's former campaign manager. "I think once a public debate starts, you need to engage," Smith said.

Brian McCabe, president of Progress for America, a leading supporter of Bush's effort, said, "I think that a lot of people thought after the election we wouldn't see so much advertising on the air again, but Social Security came out of the box quickly, and a lot of the groups that engaged last year began to engage again."

Progress for America, a group that worked to help Bush win re-election, spent more than $3-million on ads in March.

During the presidential campaign, Bush talked about his hopes for overhauling Social Security. But voters focused on the candidates' fitness to conduct the fight against terrorism.

Once re-elected, Bush made Social Security his No. 1 priority. He devoted a good portion of his State of the Union speech to his idea of letting younger workers invest a portion of the payroll taxes designated for the pension program's benefit trust funds.

Democratic opponents of the idea have made their case in the districts of Republican colleagues who are wary about embracing Bush's idea of private accounts.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., for example, went to the district of Minnesota Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht.

Paying for the trip was Americans United to Protect Social Security, an umbrella group headed by the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Among the groups backing Bush on Social Security are the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, which have unified under the banner of the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security.

The battle over Social Security has caused a rift between the AARP and USA Next, a more conservative group whose members include former television host Art Linkletter.

"AARP is actually to blame for the predicament we find ourselves in with Social Security," said Charlie Jarvis, chairman and chief executive of USA Next.

"They have been the behemoth that has been pushing the liberal agenda, including 18 payroll taxes (since Social Security's inception). We intend to make them pay very dearly for their opposition to personal retirement accounts."