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PolitiFact.com | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in politics

Social Security | Beyond Florida

Democrats exaggerate Republican claims about privatizing Social Security

It was a winning line for Democrats five years ago against President George W. Bush's proposal: Republicans, they said, want to "privatize Social Security."

Now Democrats are turning to it again in the midterm campaigns — even though it's often an exaggeration of GOP candidates' positions.

In Arkansas, a campaign ad shows a solemn Sen. Blanche Lincoln saying, "Unlike John, I'm against privatizing Social Security and Medicare." That's John Boozman, her Republican rival.

In Colorado, a narrator says that Ken Buck "wants to privatize Social Security, and he even questioned whether Social Security should exist at all." That ad was approved by Sen. Michael Bennet, the Democratic incumbent.

On CNN, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston summed up the situation by saying, "virtually all Republican candidates for Congress across the country support privatization of Social Security, deep cuts in Social Security, like Dan Webster in Florida." Webster, the former speaker of the Florida House, is challenging U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Orlando.

Across the country, the charge is being made. Liberal groups are mounting campaigns asking candidates to sign pledges to protect Social Security. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has an interactive map on its website identifying Republicans who want to "end Social Security as we know it."

In some ways, it's a sign Democrats don't think touting their legislative accomplishments — a huge economic stimulus package, a major health care law and new financial regulations — will win them many votes. So they're going back to attacks they've used in previous elections, said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst who closely follows congressional races.

"It's an old tried and true Democratic move that Republicans really don't like Social Security and are going to privatize it when they get in," Rothenberg said. "The Republicans actually have a much more elaborate approach to Social Security, but politics isn't about details and specifics. It's about themes and defining your opponent."

PolitiFact has found many claims distort Republican positions on Social Security, either a little or a lot.

Leading the charge

A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama used his weekly address to argue that "some Republican leaders in Congress" are "pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall."

The most high-profile "Republican leader" actively promoting personal retirement accounts is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. He has presented personal accounts as part of an overall budget plan he calls "The Roadmap," but it's a far cry from a wholly privatized system.

Under the Ryan plan, those 55 and older would not be affected one way or another. Workers under 55 would have the option to stay in the traditional government-run system and receive benefits as promised or to opt for personal retirement accounts in which they could invest roughly a third of their payroll taxes. Those personal accounts would be a series of funds managed by the government. It would partially privatize Social Security in the sense that people would own their own accounts and choose among government-approved investments.

Ryan said personal accounts should not be called "privatized." "In the personal-accounts system, the accounts are owned by the individual, and managed and overseen by Social Security — not a stockbroker or private investment firm," Ryan said in an e-mail.

In 2005, Republicans called similar plans "private accounts," until pollsters found more people supported the plan if they were called "personal" accounts, said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.

But even Ryan's personal accounts have not been embraced by most Republicans. Michael Steel, a spokesman for Republican leader John Boehner, said Boehner has "thanked Rep. Ryan for offering this vision — but he has not co-sponsored or endorsed it, nor has any other member of the House Republican Leadership."

Because of the lack of support from key members of the Republican leadership, and because the plan represents only a partial privatization, we rated Obama's statement Barely True.

Other Democrats give the impression that Republicans support cuts to Social Security right now. But we haven't found one Republican who favors rolling back current benefits.

In Florida, Rep. Wasserman Schultz accused Webster of supporting "privatization of Social Security, deep cuts in Social Security." He did make remarks at a forum sponsored by the tea party that the federal budget outlook could be improved by rolling back the current budget to 2007 levels.

"Does it get rid of TARP and health care and all of the other things, including the stimulus package? Yes, it does that. Does it take back some of the COLAs for the entitlement programs? Yes, it does that, too," he said. Usually, Social Security and Medicare are considered key entitlement programs. But within days, Webster's campaign issued a statement saying he did not support cuts or reductions for those currently receiving benefits. We rated Wasserman Schultz's statement Barely True.

Policy versus politics

If Republicans support limited personal accounts in principle, there's little evidence that Republican elected officials are making it a legislative priority. That disappoints Michael Tanner, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute. Tanner believes that personal accounts would give people more control over their retirement plans and that Republicans should not retreat in the face of Democratic opposition.

"One reason the Democrats have been so successful in expanding the government year after year is that they have the courage of their convictions," Tanner wrote in a recent op-ed for the National Review Online. "They lose on an issue time after time, but they keep coming back until they win. Take national health care: After Hillarycare went down to defeat in 1993, the Left didn't give up. And today we have Obamacare. Republicans lost on Social Security and curled up into a fetal position, begging for mercy."

Not so fast, responded Andrew Biggs, another Social Security policy expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He supports personal accounts but believes they aren't worth the political price for Republicans.

Younger workers would be taking money out of the traditional Social Security system to open personal accounts, Biggs said. Right now, that money is going to current retirees. So the federal government would have to provide start-up money to put the personal accounts in place. This wasn't a deal breaker when Social Security had more money coming in than going out, but annual surpluses will end in the next five years or so. It's not politically practical for Republicans to propose new costs for an already stressed system, Biggs said.

By Dec. 1, 2010, a bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform will release recommendations for stabilizing the federal government's balance sheets. It's widely expected that it will advise adjustments to Social Security. Policy watchers across the political spectrum are predicting either benefit cuts, tax increases or some combination.

Times staff writer Robert Farley contributed to this report.

The statement

Dan Webster supports "privatization of Social Security, deep cuts in Social Security."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, in an interview on CNN

The ruling

Webster's comments at a forum gave the impression he supported cuts for entitlement programs, but he didn't mention Social Security by name. Later, he said he didn't support cuts to the program. Webster wouldn't answer our questions on private accounts, but that doesn't give Wasserman Schultz license to fill in the blanks.

The statement

Dan Webster supports "privatization of Social Security, deep cuts in Social Security."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, in an interview on CNN

The ruling

Webster's comments at a forum gave the impression he supported cuts for entitlement programs, but he didn't mention Social Security by name. Later, he said he didn't support cuts to the program. Webster wouldn't answer our questions on private accounts, but that doesn't give Wasserman Schultz license to fill in the blanks.

The statement

"Buck wants to privatize Social Security."

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., in a campaign ad

The ruling

Republican Ken Buck said that he does not think that the Founding Fathers intended to have the program and that the private sector would do a better job of allowing younger workers to save. But he does not want to change the program for current retirees or those close to retiring.

The statement

John Boozman supports "privatizing Social Security"

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., in a TV ad

The ruling

Lincoln's ad makes it sound like Boozman has advocated handing the entire program over to Wall Street bankers. Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., supports allowing — not requiring — younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts.

The statement

Dan Webster supports "privatization of Social Security, deep cuts in Social Security."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, in an interview on CNN

The ruling

Webster's comments at a forum gave the impression he supported cuts for entitlement programs, but he didn't mention Social Security by name. Later, he said he didn't support cuts to the program. Webster wouldn't answer our questions on private accounts, but that doesn't give Wasserman Schultz license to fill in the blanks.

Democrats exaggerate Republican claims about privatizing Social Security 09/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010 11:28pm]
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