Two of the nation's top political targets were in town last week, and they were both talking about President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security. On March 29, U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, held a "Social Security Workshop" in Belle-vue, the largest city in his 8th District, which stretches along the Eastside suburbs down into rural areas of King and Pierce counties. On March 31, Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell hosted a Seattle rally to "stop privatization" of Social Security. Surprisingly, both forums highlighted how hard it is to sell Bush's privatization scheme. Even more striking, though, was how well Reichert is playing the terrible hand the president has dealt him and how difficult Cantwell finds it to take advantage of the GOP's weakness on the issue.
Enacted in 1935, the Social Security Act established an insurance program for retired people, the disabled, and the children of deceased workers, among others. Funded through a payroll tax with contributions by workers and their employers, Social Security now sends monthly checks to around 47 million Americans. The program has been an astounding success in its goal of reducing poverty among the vulnerable, particularly the elderly. Free-market conservatives have opposed Social Security throughout its history. Led now by Bush, the right is taking another run at the program, claiming it is facing a crisis of insolvency because of the demographics of the baby boom generation. Previously, Congress has ensured Social Security's health by raising the payroll tax and the retirement age. Instead of such modest adjustments, Bush is seeking to change Social Security from an insurance program to a private retirement account—kind of like a government-run 401(K). While lying to the American people about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or Saddam's links to Al Qaeda was relatively easy to pull off, it's proving a lot harder for Bush to sell his Social Security snake oil. For starters, it's obvious to everyone that even if the solvency problem is as dire as Bush claims, allowing younger workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts won't address it. Even the Republicans admit that the government will have to borrow $750 billion to help with the "transition" to personal accounts. (Democrats say it's $5 trillion.)
Bush and his people have been barnstorming the nation, and the more people hear, the less they like it. Last Friday, April 1, with Bush's poll numbers in a free fall, Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., acknowledged that Social Security reform was unlikely this year. And if you think Republicans will grab onto the third rail of American politics in 2006, an election year, I've got a private account I'd like you to invest in.
In this political context, Cantwell and Reichert find themselves the unwanted objects of attention. Reichert, the former King County Sheriff who successfully pursued the Green River Killer, just started serving in the House in January, but he has already been identified as one of the nation's 10 most vulnerable Republican House members by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). While Reichert jokes about the sheriff being on the 10 Most Wanted List, the NRCC has identified him as vulnerable so that he will get the early funding he needs. Cantwell, meanwhile, is "number one" on the list of Bush's political targets, according to a fund-raising letter obtained by The National Journal, written by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The description of the two incumbents as vulnerable must be understood in relative terms. For instance, neither has a declared opponent yet. And while nothing says winner like incumbency in modern American politics, the time when incumbents are most vulnerable is after they complete their first term. Reichert and Cantwell both face their first re-election campaigns in 2006.
In 2000, Cantwell won her Senate seat by a mere 2,229 votes out of more than 2.4 million, beating incumbent Republican Slade Gorton. Her miniscule margin of victory alone would make her a Republican target. (She also has been in this fix before, as a one-term U.S. representative who lost her 1st District House seat in the 1994 election to Rick White.) Cantwell hasn't helped herself by being a tepid fund-raiser who has yet to retire $2.5 million in campaign debt—mostly owed to herself. She financed her first campaign largely with her own wealth from Real Networks stock, which has since fallen dramatically in value. In addition, Cantwell hasn't been a high- profile senator—admittedly a difficult task for a rookie from the minority party who is working with a senior member, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray is renowned for bringing home the bacon. And since Bush desperately wants a filibuster-proof, 60-member Republican majority in the Senate, which might enable him to really dismantle Social Security, it's easy to see why Cantwell will be in the White House's sights.
In his first election for any office, last year, Reichert proved to be terrible at debating his opponents but good at pressing the flesh. He faced down KIRO-AM talk-show host Dave Ross, a Democrat who fit the district's moderate profile but wasn't an outstanding campaigner. While Reichert won 51.5 percent to 46.7 percent, the Democrats' presidential candidate, John Kerry, and Murray also won the 8th District. Looked at in national terms, if you put together the relatively close margin of victory and Democratic candidates' success in the district, you have a real swing area. One that's not buying the President's Social Security boondoggle.
Reichert says his district is pretty evenly split over Bush's Social Security plan. That was not evident at last week's forum. Reichert introduced himself and his panel of "experts"—a Bush staffer from Treasury, a Hastert staffer, and Paul Guppy, vice president for research at the conservative Washington Policy Center—to polite if unenthusiastic applause from the crowd of 350 at Bellevue High School. Then, Seattle Times editorial page editor Jim Vesely, the evening's moderator, stepped to the podium. Vesely introduced himself quietly by saying that the Times disagreed with the president on Social Security reform. The applause was deafening. Throughout the rest of the evening, the overwhelming majority of the crowd expressed outright hostility to the Bush agenda—booing, hissing, and heckling the expert panel. Afterward, Reichert claimed that groups from outside the district had stacked the crowd. Even if that's true, which wasn't apparent from the crowd's appearance, the Republicans should have been able to turn out more constituents in Bellevue than the Democrats.
With Republicans apparently outnumbered, Reichert proceeded to show that he is a much better congressman than he was a candidate. Looking handsome with perfect silver hair gleaming in contrast to a dark suit, Reichert was unflappable as he worked the front of the room with a cordless microphone, alternately joking with and scolding the crowd. "I've been in unruly crowds before," he said later. "I've been spit on, shot at, stabbed—what's this crowd going to do to me?"
Besides, his staff had done an excellent job setting up the forum. Reichert played the role of host—neither asking the questions nor answering them. He didn't have to take a position on the issues or even summarize the crowd's stack of questions.
After the event, he talked to constituents and showed how good he is at engaging people one-on-one. Many people wanted to discuss his vote against congressional meddling in the demise of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who died March 31, two weeks after a court ordered her feeding tube removed. Citing personal and philosophical concerns, Reichert was one of only five Republicans to vote against an order that a federal court consider the case. While he listened and sympathized with constituents about Schiavo, he didn't back down or express any regret. He says the response to his vote has been overwhelmingly positive.
Voters are like baby chicks—they imprint early. Reichert's vote in the Schiavo tragedy will establish him as an independent who votes his conscience. That will go a long way to helping him resist a Democratic effort to oust him. But Reichert isn't taking any chances. While he supports Bush's personal Social Security accounts, he isn't predicting rapid change. Says Reichert, "If people don't believe the numbers, how do you go from there? You're stuck."
A couple of days later, Cantwell was stuck at her impressive 1,000-attendee fund-raising luncheon in the Westin Hotel's grand ballroom, where she hoped to raise $250,000 for her 2006 campaign, while hundreds of people filled Seattle's Town Hall for her Social Security rally. The interest was so great that around 100 people who couldn't get in trooped off to another room on a different floor, where they could hear the rally piped in. After 30 minutes of delay, the crowd grew restive. One audience member muttered, "They eat lunch while we wait. How's that for manners?!"
Eventually, Cantwell took the stage alongside Murray and U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., for an event that served up red meat to a crowd as blue any in the nation. Unfortunately for Cantwell, she wasn't as adept at feeding the hungry crowd as were Senate colleagues Mikulski and Murray. Mikulski is a classic, fire-breathing rhetorician who excels at the punchy quip. She compared Social Security's problem to a slow leak in a car's tire and said Bush's solution was like selling the car. "Why get rid of the car when you have a slow leak? I though we should have gotten rid of the president." The crowd adored her. Murray, of course, does not deliver acerbic stem-winders, but she has a wonderful earnestness that touches people. She talked about how her father, who had seven children, was stricken with multiple sclerosis and was unable to work. The payments from Social Security enabled her family to survive and even prosper. Said Murray, "I am not going to stand by and watch this president take away the best antipoverty program this country has ever put in place." Cantwell didn't ever really connect with the crowd from the stage. She fumbled with questions from the audience written down on cards, didn't develop her points well, and never established a persona like Murray's classic mom-in-tennis-shoes, or Mikulski's mad-as-hell-and-joking-about-it.
Afterward, Cantwell did better as people swarmed around her. She patiently listened, showed real concern, and even rattled off a specific contact and phone number for one job seeker. She also hustled upstairs to directly address the overflow crowd, where she got in some good jokes about how cold the room was and how much money she'd lost in the stock market.
Cantwell, from all reports, is a wonk. She loves public policy, and that might be one of the problems in the Social Security debate for her. The Democrats show no interest in developing a position on how to deal with Social Security's demographic problems. As Murray says, when Bush is willing to withdraw the privatization nonsense, then the White House and bipartisan members of Congress can sit down and figure how to keep Social Security solvent. It's easy to imagine Cantwell digging into those policy choices and explaining them to constituents.
Washington State Republican Party chair Chris Vance, who makes no secret of his desire to be Cantwell's GOP challenger, says Democrats will lose the Social Security debate unless they offer specific reforms.
Cantwell and the Democrats are counting on an unpopular Social Security scheme and a midterm election to carry them to victory. The midterm is when a president's party often loses support, particularly if the commander-in-chief has overreached, and that's something many think Bush has done with Social Security, among other things. "There is nothing more powerful than the American people when they are heard," Cantwell told the crowd. "If you speak loudly and powerfully on this, we will not have the privatization of Social Security."