STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
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: 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: 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.
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OBAMA: Not on my watch.
HORSLEY: Unidentified Man: Buck wants to privatize Social Security. And he even questioned whether Social Security should exist at all.
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ROBERT SHAPIRO: Democrats will try at every opportunity to go after Republicans where they're vulnerable. That may be one vulnerability.
HORSLEY: 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: 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: 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: Scott Horsley, NPR news, Washington.
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