Social Security Overhaul Backers Claim Gains

Posted February 28, 2005 at 6:23pm

At a time when many media reports have suggested that critics of a Social Security overhaul have been making progress in the battle for public opinion, national Republicans are portraying last week’s Congressional recess as a step in the right direction.

Progress for America and Generations Together, the two most active private-sector groups pushing for an overhaul, compiled memos documenting their work on the issue in the past week and are distributing them to Members of Congress this week.

The Republican National Committee is sending the House and Senate GOP Conferences its own document that offers talking points about the plan.

All three missives argue that reform advocates are making progress in educating voters about the need to address Social Security, and they promise to further ramp up the issue in the days ahead.

“While some of the national media coverage has portrayed a one-sided, anti-reform recess, our experience on the ground tells a very different story,” asserts the Generations Together memo, which was given to Senate and House Republican leaders as well as to key White House officials, including Karl Rove and Social Security svengali Barry Jackson.

The RNC’s talking points include the message that “the first step in this process is to educate our country and make the public aware that there is a problem.”

That sentiment was echoed by an administration official, who pointed out that President Bush will visit New Jersey and Indiana on Friday to stump for his plan. Treasury Secretary John Snow will travel to Arkansas this week to do the same.

“The president talked about Social Security during his State of the Union as part of a deliberate strategy to begin a debate on this issue,” the source said. “A month after that speech this is the dominant domestic policy debate taking place in this country.”

But not all is rosy for the advocates of an overhaul.

Left unsaid in Monday’s bevy of pro-reform memorandums is a concern that continued negative press coverage of the issue could derail the president’s No. 1 domestic priority before a bill is even introduced in Congress.

“The president’s advocacy for the privatization of Social Security has rallied more people in opposition to his plan than for it,” said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for Americans United to Protect Social Security.

That idea has been fomented by groups like AUPSS and the seniors lobby AARP, which sought to disrupt town halls held by Republican Members during the recess.

It has been bolstered by a recent string of comments by Republicans that expressed skepticism about aspects of the proposed overhaul.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told The New York Times this weekend that “90 percent of the lifting is with the president” to pass the plan.

Unbowed, the White House pledged a redoubling of its persuasion efforts to Congress this week.

“This will be an aggressive effort where administration officials will go to town halls with Members of Congress and work closely with them to move this forward,” said the administration source.

The White House’s courting of Members will be bolstered by the sharing of data compiled by Progress for America and Generations Next showing that the American people are beginning to come around on Social Security reform.

In the memo, PFA President Brian McCabe says his group now has full-time grass-roots field organizers in 20 states with plans to expand to 25 states.

In addition, PFA made more than 7,000 phone calls into targeted districts and states over the past week. The organization’s spokesmen appeared on 38 radio talk shows over the last seven days.

Generations Together said it helped drive pro-reform supporters to more than 50 town halls and placed op-eds in papers as disparate as Florida’s St. Augustine Record to Utah’s Provo Daily Herald.

Stuart Roy, a consultant for PFA, asserted that reform advocates are now acknowledging that “there is a crisis or at least a problem that has got to be solved.”

Roy added that Bush’s continued willingness to tackle the issue has helped steer dollars to PFA’s war chest, which currently stands at $9 million.

“It is easier to raise money for Social Security reform than an issue the president is not out talking about every day.”

A source close to Generations Next added that because of the education campaign, there is a “hunger out there to better understand the status of this system.”

“The American people are just beginning to understand the importance of reforming the system. We have only just begun,” added the source.

The result of that education effort, Republicans hope, is that the debate will soon shift from whether Social Security is a problem to how it needs to be fixed.

“The debate now is should we fix a problem or kick it down the road,” asserted the Bush administration official.