Democrats Turn to Social Security for Political Momentum

Battered over Obamacare, the party wants to refocus the argument over entitlements.

Social Security supporters attend a rally in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

Increasingly anxious about the prospect of a difficult election year, Democratic candidates are already starting to take refuge in one of the party's most tried-and-true issues: Social Security.

It's happening in Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor has deployed a blitz of TV ads to accuse his opponent, GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, of plotting to cut, privatize, and undermine the popular entitlement program. House Majority PAC, a super PAC that helps Democratic House candidates, has similarly taken to the airwaves to argue that Republican candidates want to effectively get rid of it.

And in Florida, where the parties face off in a special House election next week, Social Security has been the Democrats' go-to attack against Republican David Jolly. "I don't think it's right for David Jolly to risk Social Security money in the stock market," said one negative ad, featuring an elderly couple talking into the camera.

The attacks are the first glimpses of an issue the party will push to the forefront of the 2014 elections, according to Democratic strategists. With candidates battered by Obamacare's deepening unpopularity, Social Security represents one of their surest bets of putting Republicans on the defensive in a year when the GOP otherwise plans to play a lot of offense.

"Social Security remains a potent an issue for Democrats," said Jef Pollock, a Democratic strategist. "In multiple national polls, data shows that voters believe that the Democrats are better able to protect Social Security going forward, and have also seen ample evidence about the reckless approach that most GOPers have taken to privatizing the system — something that is a real negative for any GOP candidate."

The question is whether this amounts to smart strategy or a desperate play from a party with nowhere else to turn. The last great Democratic hope for political success — the GOP's support for Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to voucherize Medicare for future beneficiaries — failed to deliver the sweeping congressional victories Democrats had promised. And the issue hardly addresses the election's current topic du jour, the troubled implementation of Obamacare.

"The national environment for Democrats is terrible, so they're looking for any specific things they can, grasping at straws," said Keith Emis, a pollster for Cotton. "The election is about Obamcare, and they want it to be about something else."

As a political issue, Social Security has laid relatively dormant in recent years, supplanted by a fierce debate over health care, Medicare, and Obamacare. President Obama largely sidestepped it during his last presidential campaign, instead striking a conciliatory note that the two parties should be able to negotiate over the program's future.

It flared briefly last year, when discussions began over implementing the "chained CPI," a proposal that would have effectively cut payouts to beneficiaries. The plan from Obama angered progressive Democrats who considered the policy and politics wrongheaded, and even the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Greg Walden, warned his fellow Republicans about the proposal's political consequences.

But it makes sense that some Democratic candidates would, along with continued attacks on Medicare, dust off the line of criticism now. It's dictated in part by the real estate of the 2014 election: Most of this year's competitive House and Senate races — such as those in Arkansas or Louisiana — are in conservative, older, and whiter states. In places like those, Social Security is one of the few issues where the Democratic agenda remains well-liked among voters. Polls show that seniors, even those who are Republican, have a deep aversion to cutting the program even if it would help the country's deficit.

"You'll see Medicare and Social Security right at the forefront of the contrast we're drawing between ourselves and our opponent," said Erik Dorey, spokesman for Pryor's campaign.

The senator's campaign says its attacks against Cotton have resonance because the freshman House member voted for a budget last year that supported raising the retirement programs' eligibility age. Other Republicans, however, point out that it's hardly a front-burner issue in Washington or elsewhere. While Obamacare is driven into the public consciousness by countless news stories about its foibles, delays, and broken promises, nothing makes Social Security similarly relevant in 2014.

"I think there's nothing to push back against; it's not an issue," said Peter Feaman, a Republican National Committee member from Florida, who's watching his state's special-election race closely. "It's made up out of whole cloth. Point to some bill somewhere that's talking about reducing benefits for Social Security recipients — it's not there, at all."