President Bush's effort to privatize Social Security in 2005 failed, but that doesn't mean, by any stretch, that Republicans have stopped supporting the idea. Republican Senate candidates, in particular, have evinced big changes to the way Social Security works.
Nevada's Sharron Angle, most notably, wants to end Social Security as we know it, phasing it out for younger generations. In Colorado, Ken Buck has questioned Social Security's constitutionality, and his primary opponent, Jane Norton, has said that Social Security has become a "Ponzi scheme." In Indiana, Dan Coats has praised Congressman Paul Ryan's ideas about entitlement reform and Social Security, which include gradually raising the retirement age to 70 and reducing Social Security benefits for wealthy retirees. In Florida, Marco Rubio has proposed reducing benefits for Americans under 65. Missouri's Roy Blunt, Louisiana incumbent David Vitter, and Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, who were all in Congress during the Bush years, have all pushed for privatization during their careers.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has pushed the issue in a handful of races this year, banking on the notion that privatization is unpopular. On the whole, it probably is, though polling on Social Security has been scarce since the Bush-era push failed. A Bloomberg poll in March showed that 59% disagree with the statement that "government-run programs such as Social Security and Medicare should be privatized." (Via PollingReport.com.)
Most people seem to agree that Social Security is on an unsustainable path, and $678 billion in Social Security spending accounted for over 19% of the federal budget in 2009, according to tables from the Office of Management and Budget. Add in Medicare, and the two combined account for 38% of spending. Ergo, the idea that something should or could be done is not such a controversial one. At the same time, the Bloomberg poll speaks to voters' reluctance to radically change a system that provides them with critical benefits in their retirement years.
A candidate's opinion on Social Security doesn't make it a campaign issue, and some candidates have been more aggressive than others in talking about it and listing it prominently on their campaign websites. But it appears that Democrats are willing to take a shot at Republicans for their platform, hoping to replicate the privatization failure of 2005 in the 2010 election landscape.