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Lawmakers take fight over Social Security to voters

WASHINGTON—Carefully coached and scripted, Republicans and Democrats from Congress will fan out across the country this week to talk to their constituents about overhauling Social Security.

Republicans will head home armed with advice on how to sell President Bush's proposal to create new private investment accounts—including which words to use, how to appeal to the young and the old, and suggested answers for likely questions.

Democrats will highlight a new Internet-based calculator to show constituents how much they might lose under Bush's proposal. They also will pack a "tool kit" of talking points and a script to use when inviting people to town-hall meetings.

These unusual levels of preparation underscore the stakes as Congress takes a weeklong President's Day recess to talk to constituents about Social Security, the lawmakers' first real opportunity since Bush made the issue the domestic centerpiece of his second term.

Until now Bush has had the field largely to himself. He's visited eight states so far pitching his proposal to allow Americans under 55 to divert some of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts. Yet he knows he faces an uphill fight: "This idea is going nowhere if the Congress does not believe there is a problem," Bush said Thursday.

Republicans from Congress will take soundings back home all week.

"This is sort of a starting point for our members," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate finance subcommittee on Social Security and a Bush ally.

"This is a long process. This is not a bill that we're going to take up in the next few weeks. We have a lot of education to do, both internally with our members and staff, as well as externally with the people of America."

Santorum, the third-ranking Senate Republican, gave his fellow GOP senators a CD with step-by-step advice for selling Bush's proposal. It includes a 30-page memo from Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican strategist, with detailed tips on how to make the sale.

"Social Security is so personal and so much a part of the American psyche that it simply can't be dealt with in (a) traditional political manner," Luntz advises in the memo, obtained by Knight Ridder. "Do not underestimate the personal bond between the American people and their Social Security check."

He cautioned that Democrats retain the upper hand.

"Voters continue to trust the Democratic Party to handle Social Security because they think Republicans lack the compassion and concern to find an equitable solution that benefits everyone," he wrote. His answer? Humanize the issue.

For younger Americans, Luntz urged focusing on the threat that doing nothing imperils future benefits, while emphasizing that Bush's new accounts would let them control their own money.

"It's YOUR money," he wrote in one script. "YOU earned it. The government TOOK it from you. Now it's YOUR chance to take control of YOUR retirement."

Republicans should say they want to "strengthen" the system, not "reform" it, Luntz wrote. They should emphasize words such as "promise," "protect," "care," "long-term health" and "guarantee." They shouldn't, he wrote, stress benefit reductions.

"If Americans think you want to protect and enhance their retirement security, they'll back you," he wrote. "If they think you want to reduce their benefits, for ANY reason, they'll oppose you."

To older Americans, Luntz suggests stressing that their benefits will be safe but that their grandchildren's are threatened unless Bush gets his way.

"This point, though simple, is extraordinarily powerful, especially with older women. ... It is the only way that you can sell them on this proposal."

If someone asks about the estimated $2 trillion cost of establishing private accounts, Luntz advises Republicans to answer: "I am looking at the financial difficulties our children will inherit if we do nothing and that's even more frightening."

Democrats have their own sales props.

"Democrats are opening a second front . . . to show the American people that their benefits get cut under the Bush plan," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"As Democrats head home, they will be armed with what is known as a killer ap," Schumer said, using computer jargon. "We have an easy-to-use calculator."

The calculator, available online at, allows users to compare how much they would receive after retiring, either from the current Social Security system or from a combination of Social Security and private accounts.

Democrats hope it'll persuade younger Americans that they could lose—and shake their support of private accounts. Polls show that younger Americans, while divided, are more supportive of private accounts than any other age group.

"Their inaccurate claims are based on false assumptions," said Tracey Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

After this week, a group of Senate Democrats plans a barnstorming tour of cities, including Detroit, Las Vegas, New York and Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, this week House Democrats plan as many as 300 town hall meetings across the country. One bunch of House Democrats in their 30s—called the Thirty-Something Group—will target college students and young professionals.

"On the radio, on the Internet, on college campuses, in the editorial pages and on the evening news, Democrats will present our views," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House Democratic leader. "Every media market will hear from House Democrats."

House Democrats also have what they call a "tool kit" of arguments against private accounts. The kit, obtained by Knight Ridder, urges several key arguments to constituents, including: that Social Security will remain solvent until 2052 without any changes; that Bush's private accounts would accelerate the system's insolvency by about 20 years; that workers young and old would end up with less money in retirement; and that Wall Street would reap a $940 billion profit from the private accounts.

"Private accounts make Social Security's challenge worse, force massive benefit cuts and increase the national debt," summed up one Democratic talking point. "Once President Bush stops insisting on privatization, we can work together to keep the promise of Social Security."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Rick Santorum, Charles Schumer

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