No third rail

Posted: Nov 11, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Rep. Tom Davis deserves plaudits as the superb congressional campaign chairman who led Republicans to mid-term gains, but he might ponder one serious mistake. Davis advised candidates to avoid saying anything about Social Security. In fact, Republicans who ignored him prospered last Tuesday. Victories by candidates who vigorously endorsed individual private retirement accounts shattered a tenet of American political folklore: Social Security is the third rail for Republicans; touch it, and you will die. This year, almost all brave enough to touch it survived. Some who did not were losers, raising suspicion that they should have taken the risk. The issue did not herd panicky Social Security recipients into the Democratic pen. A Public Opinion Strategies study shows a 12-percentage point Republican advantage among senior citizens Tuesday. But will a Republican White House inclined toward caution about radical domestic proposals truly embrace the issue? Conservative activists attending a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning were stunned to hear Bush policy aide Barry Jackson spend 15 minutes extolling Social Security reform, and this is not a White House whose staffers free-lance. The third rail's failure to work did not result from lack of Democratic trying. Cookie-cutter campaigns were waged coast-to-coast, accusing Republicans of threatening elders with reckless schemes. Nobody was more aggressive than Jack Conway, a telegenic young hope of Kentucky Democrats seeking to unseat three-term Republican Rep. Anne Northup in Louisville's traditionally Democratic 3rd District (carried comfortably by Al Gore against George W. Bush). Northrup was made a prime Democratic target nationally. At one senior citizens rally, Conway displayed a chart showing slumping stock prices and asked: "Would you like your privatized Social Security investment account to look this?" Northrup did not take Tom Davis's advice and retreat, while Conway betrayed the inexperience of a 33-year-old by admitting the alternative to private accounts. "We're going to have to look at the retirement age," said Conway. "We're going to have to look at benefit levels." He later took those options off the table, but it was too late. Rep. Pat Toomey, a leader in pressing for private accounts, increased his victory margin to 57 percent in his Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania district. Reps. Clay Shaw of Florida and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who in 2000 narrowly won districts containing lots of pensioners, each reached 60 percent Tuesday after campaigning for private accounts. That was the position of 40-year-old corporate CEO Chris Chocola, who upset a seasoned Democratic campaigner attacking him on Social Security, former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, in traditionally Democratic South Bend, Ind. Another reformer, John Kline, defeated Democratic Rep. Bill Luther on his third try in Minnesota. Bush's private investment plan was backed by winners of key races that recaptured the Senate for Republicans: Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, John E. Sununu in New Hampshire and, especially, Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina. Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, hammered Dole on Social Security. She responded by exhibiting a blank piece of paper labeled: "Bowles Social Security Plan." The only losing Republican reformist was Sen. Tim Hutchinson in Arkansas, and he suffered from family values rather than retirement issues. Not all Republicans were steadfast. Jim Talent backed away in Missouri and barely won his Senate seat. South Dakota's Republican candidates in close races -- Gov. Bill Janklow for the House and Rep. John Thune for the Senate -- retreated; Janklow won handily while Thune lost narrowly. Ten-term, 72-year-old Rep. George Gekas of Pennsylvania came out against private accounts; he was the only Republican loser in the nation's four Republican-vs.-Democrat pairings of two incumbents caused by redistricting. The object lesson came in New Jersey, where neophyte Republican Senate candidate Doug Forrester was pounded for wanting to "privatize" Social Security. He responded by pledging never to touch the system, and then lost badly to old-fashioned liberal Frank Lautenberg. House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt and his House campaign chairman, Rep. Nita Lowey, had publicly declared the 2002 election a "referendum on Social Security." The verdict was delivered Wednesday by the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, which pointed out the futility of "attacking Republicans on Social Security" as a "silver bullet" and losing four straight elections.