Democrats Latch On To Defending Social Security

With Tea Party-backed candidates surging in Senate races across the country, Democrats are looking for a way to fight back. They may have found an opening, sticking up for Social Security. Some Tea Party candidates have suggested replacing the popular program with a private retirement system, at least for younger workers. Democrats hope to use that issue to paint their opponents as outside the mainstream.

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Some of this year's campaigns for Congress involve candidates who want to change Social Security. Some Tea Party candidates have suggested replacing the popular program with a private retirement system - at least for younger workers. Democrats suggest that means their opponents are extreme. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: 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.

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

HORSLEY: 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 cannot be trusted.

BARACK 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Not on my watch.

HORSLEY: 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.1

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

Unidentified Man: 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.

HORSLEY: 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.

HORSLEY: To be sure, the program does face a long-range financial gap, as benefits paid out surpass payroll taxes coming in. But on paper, at least, Social Security has enough money set aside to make up the difference for almost 30 years. Even when that's gone, there should still be enough tax money coming in to cover three-quarters of the benefits owed.

William Gale, who directs the Retirement Security Project at the Brookings Institution says compared to some of the government's other long-term challenges, closing the Social Security gap is relatively easy. It would require only modest adjustments in what the government collects or pays out, and the sooner we get started, the better.

WILLIAM GALE: The arithmetic of the problem is pretty simple. We either raise revenues devoted to Social Security or we reduce benefits that Social Security pays.

HORSLEY: But if the math is simple, the politics are not.

INSKEEP: Excuse me, Senator Simpson. Do you really think that Social Security beneficiaries are milking the system?

HORSLEY: Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, who co-chairs a White House commission on the deficit, created a stir not long ago when he wrote that Social Security has become like a milk cow with 310 million tits.

When Simpson arrived for a commission meeting on Capitol Hill last week, he was met by a small herd of protestors, all dressed as milk cows.

DANIEL MARANS: My name is Daniel Marans. I'm dressed as a cow here to speak for the millions of hard-working Americans that are absolutely opposed to any benefit cuts to Social Security, including a raise in the retirement age.

HORSLEY: Just as some on the right are intent on phasing out Social Security, some on the left insist benefits must be preserved at any cost. Both sides seem to ignore the possibility of compromise and treat the debate - like Marans' cow costume - as black and white.

Scott Horsley, NPR news, Washington.

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