Would-Be Privatizers of Social Security Rewrite History

Posted April 1, 2005 at 3:52pm

Proponents of privatizing Social Security, hoping to corral weak-kneed Republican politicians, recently launched a campaign to use the 2002 Senate race by then-Rep. John Sununu (R-N.H.) as a model for winning on the issue.

The broad effort — carried out in opinion columns, articles and speeches at the recent annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Committee — portrays Sununu as a brave champion of privatization who seized the “third rail” and emerged victorious, 51 percent to 47 percent.

But there’s a problem with their version of history: It’s a myth. It didn’t happen. Those of us who watched the race up close know that Sununu ran from the issue as far as he could. And then he ran some more.

The revisionists’ history, as laid out in a recent opinion column in the Manchester Union Leader, goes like this:

“Sununu made the politically brave decision to address the issue head-on and explain to voters that Social Security will go broke if nothing is done. He offered a partial solution: personal retirement accounts for younger workers.”

Reality tells a somewhat different story.

Of the 37 television ads run by Sununu, the Republican Party and their allies in the 2002 race, only two mentioned Social Security, and those did so only in passing. That’s less airtime than Sununu devoted to any single issue, including prescription drugs, Medicare, education, national defense, the economy and the environment.

And even in those two ads, Sununu didn’t mention his support of private, personal accounts. In fact, the reasonable conclusion a voter would draw from seeing these ads is that Sununu supported the existing Social Security system.

“Attacks won’t stop me from talking about strengthening Social Security for future generations,” is the closest Sununu ever got to mentioning privatization in the entire $12 million-plus ad war. “John Sununu has always supported Social Security, and [then-Gov.] Jeanne Shaheen [D] knows it,” claimed his only other ad mentioning the entitlement program.

The underground campaign of direct mail and phony phone calls was even worse: It attempted to cast Sununu as the opponent of privatization and Shaheen as the privatizer.

“John Sununu will never let any risky privatization scheme endanger the benefits you have earned!” screamed a postcard sent to voters in October 2002. On the final weekend of the election, a local newspaper reported that Democrats received calls claiming that it was Shaheen, Sununu’s opponent, who “wanted to privatize Social Security.”

To be fair, Sununu mentioned personal accounts in debates — when asked. But even then, his answers ranged from deceptive to dishonest.

“I don’t think anybody’s talking — that I know of — about privatizing the Social Security system,” he told voters at a candidate forum early in the campaign. Later in the fall, when his support for privatization had been exposed by the local media, Sununu insisted that he supported only voluntary private accounts, when in fact he had co-sponsored legislation requiring mandatory accounts.

It’s hard to see how this addressed the issue “head-on.”

If this Orwellian revision of the 2002 race is intended to be a model for nervous Republicans, maybe they should consider what really happened.

Six weeks before Election Day, Sununu held a double-digit lead over Shaheen in a race dominated by Iraq, national security issues and taxes. It was hard-hitting ads by the Shaheen campaign and the New Hampshire Democratic Party that targeted Sununu’s plan to privatize Social Security that helped even the race by mid-October, before the focus shifted back to national security and taxes.

In the end, a popular commander in chief and six years of sustained Republican attacks on Shaheen got the better of New Hampshire’s governor. But on election day, Sununu’s margin had dwindled to fewer than 20,000 votes.

If Sununu wants to foolishly buy into this revisionist history and tell himself that he won on Social Security, we’ll eagerly be waiting for him in 2008. But to the anxious Republicans who want an example of how to talk about privatization, you might pay more attention to Sununu’s actions than his words: run far, far away.

Kathy Sullivan is the chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.