COLUMBUS, Ohio—As a Republican leader in the House of Representatives, Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio literally wrote the book on selling President Bush's controversial plan to partly privatize Social Security.
That's turned her into a target for a Democratic campaign that's seeking to transform the issue of privatizing Social Security once again into the electrified third rail of American politics—fatal to those who dare touch it.
It helps explain why Pryce is in her toughest re-election fight in a dozen years. She's the highest-ranking member of the House Republican leadership who's threatened with possible defeat.
She's not alone. Many of the Republicans caught in close re-election battles this fall are on the defensive over Bush's proposal to let younger workers divert some of their Social Security taxes to personally managed accounts.
Some, such as Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., were out front in pushing the plan and defend it today as the only way to fix the retirement program. He co-wrote a book with Pryce telling fellow Republicans how to market the proposal.
Others are running from it.
Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., for example, argues that he never wanted to divert Social Security taxes into personally managed accounts as Bush did. "I have disagreed with the president on this particular matter," Shaw says in a television ad.
Republican Rick O'Donnell, who's seeking to hold a Republican seat in suburban Denver, says his thinking now is "better informed" than when he pushed to abolish the program altogether. "I was just 24 years old," O'Donnell said, blaming youthful exuberance for a paper he wrote titled "For Freedom's Sake, Eliminate Social Security."
Pryce also has changed her mind, saying she now would vote against Bush's idea of personally managed Social Security accounts.
"The country didn't buy the president's plan," she said in an interview. "I'm a representative. If my constituents don't like it, I'm not supposed to vote for it."
Pryce is the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference and thus the fourth highest in the party's House leadership.
Her shift underscores a return to a more traditional landscape on the issue, when politicians proposed big changes in Social Security at their peril.
Bush changed that—temporarily—by talking about his plans and still managing to win in 2000 and 2004. So did Republicans such as Pryce and Santorum.
Then Bush pushed Congress to enact something in 2005—and it failed. The more he spoke about it, the less popular it got.
"Deborah Pryce was a leader in the effort to help President Bush privatize Social Security," said Mary Jo Kilroy, a county commissioner and the Democrat who's challenging Pryce. "The president's plan was a resounding failure. The people had their eyes opened."
That reaction last year is what's turning Social Security back into the third rail for Republicans this year, said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which finances Democratic House campaigns.
"We've never stopped talking about it and don't intend to. We don't want people to forget," Feinberg said. "We have pushed hard with Democratic candidates to talk about it. It's a very good issue for Democrats to talk about."
The Democratic campaign doesn't offer much in the way of alternatives, however, focusing largely on labeling the Bush plan as "privatizing."
"Folks mainly are saying they're taking privatization off the table. Then they'll take it from there," Feinberg said.
"It's not a crisis right now," said Kilroy, noting that Social Security won't exhaust its reserves until 2040 under current forecasts. Left unchanged, the system then would be forced to cut benefits or raise taxes.
Her solution? Balance the federal budget, stop using today's surplus of Social Security revenues to finance other government programs and "put together some experts and economists to make some suggestions."
Though he no longer talks about it in detail as he did in 2004, Bush wants to take up Social Security again after November's elections. White House aides are considering using a commission—appointed in cooperation with Congress and including Democrats—to find a solution.
Yet this year's politics could make the policy debate next year even more difficult than it was last year.
"Unfortunately, the way this is being discussed clouds the real issue," said Brian McGuire, the legislative director for the AARP, the senior citizens' group.
He said candidates who decried privatization misled voters since no one proposed a complete privatization and that it was unlikely to be proposed next year either. And few, if any, are debating the genuine merits of the proposals that have been made.
"The chances are slim," he said, of getting a thoughtful debate in Congress next year.
"You get one candidate attacking and one running for cover," added former Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn., who served on Bush's Commission to Strengthen Social Security and is now a member of For Our Grandchildren, a group that advocates changes in Social Security.
"It's not a healthy discussion of the issue."
For more on the two Ohio U.S. House campaigns, go to www.pryce4congress.com and kilroyforcongress.com
For more on the two advocacy groups, go to www.aarp.org and www.forourgrandchildren.org
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map