Public Opinion and Private Accounts:
Measuring Risk and Confidence in
Rethinking Social Security
The results of the 2002 congressional elections surprised many people. In the 20 years since the late house speaker Tip O'Neill termed Social Security the “third rail of American politics,” you were more likely to find politicians attacking mom or apple pie than talking seriously about Social Security reform. As the national retirement program slipped closer to financial insolvency and the rate of return for young workers threatened to turn negative, politicians in Washington alternately turned a blind eye to the program's plight or mindlessly demagogued any whiff of reform.
For the 2002 elections, Democrats certainly tried to keep the rail charged. In race after race across the country, Democratic candidates attacked their Republican opponents for having “a secret plan to privatize Social Security.” Advertisements equated proposals to allow younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through individual accounts to Enron or a “Las Vegas gamble,” designed to help the candidate's “wealthy Wall Street backers.” Allies from anti-reform groups, like the labor-backed Campaign for America's Future, added millions of dollars of their own commercials, as well as ground troops.
Democratic Party spokesmen called the campaign “a referendum on the future of Social Security.” The Democratic National Convention Web site even featured a cartoon of President Bush pushing senior citizens off a cliff to their deaths. But in the end, in every race where Social Security was a major issue, the pro-account candidate won.
Originally published as Cato Institute Social Security Paper no. 29, January 6, 2003, and updated to reflect current information.