WASHINGTON -- "It terrifies us," said a national Republican operative, reacting to last Tuesday's special Congressional election. The GOP candidate won in the solidly Republican Arkansas 3rd District. But the campaign signaled that Social Security remains the Third Rail of American politics.
The problem is George W. Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security. For the second straight special House election, Democrats turned a seemingly sure Republican win into a nail biter by accusing the GOP of threatening the national pension plan. For the second straight time, Republicans thanked their lucky stars that the Democratic onslaught was too little, too late.
Republicans, over the long haul, will benefit if Americans can divert part of payroll taxes that finance Social Security into private investments. Polls show people who own common stock are more likely to vote Republican. But over the short haul, it could prove fatal in the 2002 House elections. While the Bush Social Security reform commission is refining its plan with another meeting in Washington this week, the House Republican campaign chairman -- Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia -- would like the operation shut down. House campaign planners want President Bush either to dump Social Security reform or start using his bully pulpit to talk about it. Bush has been mute about this and other domestic issues since Sept. 11.
Last Tuesday's election shows why Davis is so worried. The 3rd District, covering northwest Arkansas, is the state's most Republican. Bush carried it by 22 percentage points last year, and it has been represented in Congress by a Republican since 1966 (including a 1974 losing race by Bill Clinton). Asa Hutchinson, who resigned the seat this year to head the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), won with 81 percent in 1998 and was unopposed last year. John Boozman, an optometrist and former University of Arkansas football player, was a rookie candidate but seemed safe enough. On Sept. 26-27, his own polls showed him leading Democratic State Rep. Mike Hathorn by 32 percentage points. On Nov. 12-14, a week before the election, the margin had dwindled to 4 points -- a virtual tie.
The lead was shredded by a merciless, factually faulty lambasting of Boozman on Social Security, orchestrated by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "If John Boozman's scheme were enacted a year ago," said a Hathorn flyer, "your Social Security benefits would be worth 40 percent less today."
A Hathorn television spot beginning Nov. 11 claimed: "John Boozman would risk our Social Security. Gambling it on the stock market. Wall Street bankers make millions, and Arkansas families would lose everything." Hathorn himself went on camera to pledge: "As your Congressman, I will never allow anyone to risk our Social Security."
Seniors and baby-boomers told pollsters they were abandoning Boozman. Facing humiliating defeat, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) put out a television ad declaring that Social Security is "a sacred trust. A commitment we've made to our seniors. That's why John Boozman will work in Congress to protect Social Security for every senior -- and for generations to come." Thanks mainly to a superior absentee vote mechanism, Boozman won by 13 points.
That outcome did not reassure Republicans, and neither did Virginia's June 19 special election for the seat in the conservative Tidewater district that had been held by Democratic Rep. Norm Sisisky for 18 years prior to his death in March. Republican Randy Forbes's big lead over Democrat Louise Lucas disappeared when Democrats opened fire on Social Security, and he wound up a 4-point winner.
The lessons are clear to old pros of both parties. An earlier, larger DCCC intervention on Social Security would have kept the Virginia 4th District seat and might have won in Arkansas. Indeed, had the DCCC not ignored it, Democrats might have won the year's first special election on May 15 in the overwhelmingly Republican Pennsylvania 9th District. Republican Bill Shuster won with 52 percent to succeed his father, Bud, who often ran unopposed.
Traditional Republican concentration on special elections resulted in three lost Democratic opportunities, but the political danger of the president's Social Security initiative remains. The Congressional Republican message to George W. Bush: Either try to unarm the Third Rail, or put it away for 2002.