Capital Letters: Social Security Edition

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It was just a month ago that Republicans, confident in the wake of President Bush’s Social Security pitch during his State of the Union address, were predicting that Americans were convinced there were serious and imminent problems with the program and were ready for GOP legislation to fix it. They aren't so assured now. Returning from congressional recesses, Republicans are admitting that they haven’t yet closed the deal, and now say that the "educating the public" on the issue might take months. "We have to convince the American people there's a problem," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said this week.

Many Republicans haven’t been trying. Party leaders in the House had urged members to have town halls in their districts to help sell Bush's ideas on Social Security, but only about 1/3 of the 232-strong GOP delegation did. House Majority Leader Tom Delay admitted he was "disappointed' more of his members didn't hold town halls. This of course gave ammunition to the plan’s opponents, as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said Republicans didn't want to sell a proposal that is "very unpopular." Republicans offered varied reasons for not having town halls; with one Senator joking he was "resting," while many others had previous commitments. Still, more than 90 Democrats held their own town halls, leaving the minority party showing a bit more confidence on what may be the biggest issue of the next two years.

Words, Words, Words…

Asked by a reporter on Tuesday about President Bush's plan for Social Security "private accounts," Arizona Republican Sen. John Kyl snapped "personal accounts." The surprised reporter corrected herself, saying "personal accounts,” and only then did Kyl answer the question. Later that day, Democratic Senator Harry Reid, asked about Bush's plan for "personal accounts," riffed about how the reporter had fallen into a trap laid by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who reportedly advises the party on word choice, and then ripped Bush's plan for "private accounts."

Both parties believe that words like "privatize" and "privatization" get a negative reaction from Americans, and so Republicans have shifted from "private" to "personal" "or even "secure personal accounts." Reporters, trying to find most neutral term, have at times shifted to "individual accounts" in their stories, although individual retirement accounts (IRA's) already exist.

The linguistic fencing extends to the current Congress, where Republicans have a whole list of bills designed to curb lawsuits and in selling that plan, seem unable to use the word lawsuit without "frivolous" appearing before it. Democrats, long behind in the word battle, have hired a linguist from the University of California Berkley named George Lakoff to help them. And they have a few new phrases themselves. They're going back to describing their views on abortion as "safe, legal and rare" as Bill Clinton did and when asked about gays, invokes the term "equal rights" rather than "gay marriage" or even "civil unions."

The Troops Weigh In

Maine Senator Susan Collins, one of the Republican moderates who would likely play a role in any compromise on Social Security, hasn't publicly committed to any plan. She says Congress should spend the year looking at the program and then try to write legislation, an unlikely scenario since 2006 is an election year. But the Senator, who didn't hold any town halls because she was traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan over the recess as part of her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she has already met two fans of the President's ideas. While visiting troops in both countries, two soldiers, who she expected to be asking about body armor or when they were coming home, started lobbying her about the value of getting personal accounts in Social Security. "Lindsey Graham was thrilled," Collins said of the South Carolina Senator who was also on the trip and has sponsored a bill that would set up private accounts.