NPR logo Democrats Hope Tea Party's 3rd Rail Is Social Security

The Tea Party In America

Democrats Hope Tea Party's 3rd Rail Is Social Security

In college I had a kindly old English professor who, like his wife, was very left of center. His biggest political hero was Franklin D. Roosevelt and his heart remained very much with the working class of which he had once been a member as a letter carrier.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act in 1935. Anonymous/National Archives hide caption

toggle caption Anonymous/National Archives

I remember visiting his house once as a much younger man and, during a discussion about Social Security, saying maybe it should be means tested to reduce benefits to more affluent retirees to leave more money in the system, extending its solvency.

You would have thought I said I hated Herman Melville. Both this gentle man and his equally gentle wife just about jumped down my throat. You can't do that, they said. We earned that money, they said.

We remained friends but I never broached that subject again.

That's why Social Security got to be known as the third rail of American politics. Politicians quickly learned that talking about anything that threatened to reduce benefits was political suicide.

If an old, left of center married couple could get exercised about it, better to leave it alone.

One exception was then-President George W. Bush who in early 2005 at the start of his second term indicated he wanted to use his political capital to pursue partially privatizing Social Security. That, of course, didn't work the way he had hoped.

Social Security remains the third rail. And Democrats are hoping it has as much electricity flowing through it this year as it ever has.

NPR's Scott Horsley reported on Morning Edition that Democrats are hoping to slow down the momentum of some Tea Party-backed candidates by defining them as anti-Social Security in voters' minds. An excerpt of his report:

SCOTT: This year, Social Security is paying out more money in benefits than it's collecting in payroll taxes.  That trend will accelerate later in the decade, as more and more baby-boomers retire.

Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller of Alaska told ABC Social Security is fine for today's seniors, but young people need a different option.

MILLER: "Ultimately,  we've got to transition out of the Social Security arrangement and go into more of a privatization.  And it's not that radical an idea."

SCOTT: Other Senate candidates backed by the Tea Party, including Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado, have also endorsed private retirement accounts for younger workers, though all three caution existing benefits should be preserved for today's retirees.

Despite that qualifier, President Obama and other Democrats have seized on the Tea Party candidates' privatization comments in an effort to paint them as extremists whose vision of government can't be trusted.

OBAMA: "As long as I'm President, no one is going to take the retirement savings of a generation of Americans and hand it over to Wall Street.  Not on my watch." (applause)

SCOTT: Defending Social Security against Tea Party candidates has also become a staple of Democratic campaign ads, like this one in Colorado, directed at Republican candidate Ken Buck.

AD VOICEOVER:"Buck wants to privatize Social Security. And he even questioned whether Social Security should exist at all."

ROBERT SHAPIRO: "Democrats will try at every opportunity to go after Republicans where they're vulnerable. That may be one vulnerability."

SCOTT: Political scientist Robert Shapiro of Columbia University says if Republicans are vulnerable on this issue, it's because Social Security is very popular.  In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, more than two out of three people said they'd be less comfortable backing a candidate who wants to privatize it.

SHAPIRO:"Social Security still has enormous support among all segments of the public."

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