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Social Security and "Sam's Club Republicans"

"Sam's Club Republicans" is a term invented (or at least prominently used) by Tim Pawlenty, now governor of Minnesota, to describe socially conservative voters of modest means who vote Republican. According to Reihan Salam, in a perceptive op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, there is now a crisis brewing among these voters, as Bush's second term agenda unfolds:

What Pawlenty realized and what President Bush apparently fails to grasp is that the Republican Party has changed. The rich still vote for Republicans in large numbers, but they're not the party's heart and soul. To win elections, the GOP increasingly relies on socially conservative voters of modest means.

Which is why Bush's second-term agenda is so spectacularly wrongheaded. Social Security privatization (a good idea whose time hasn't come) and tax cuts for the rich (cast as "tax reform," of course) are on the front burner, and an amnesty for illegal immigrants (which would put even more pressure on native-born workers without college degrees) isn't far behind. The Freedom Club GOP is riding high and the Sam's Club crowd is left in the dust.

Consider this from the perspective of a not atypical GOP voter say, a young married woman with three small children living in Ohio. She voted for Bush because he promised to vigorously defend her family against terrorists and because he shares her values. But she has material interests too. She would like to raise her kids full time, but the money isn't there. Her husband is working long hours, but it's not nearly enough, and the tax cuts barely made a dent in their debts. At some point, she has to wonder, what has President Bush done for me lately?

What indeed? No wonder so many Congressional Republicans and relatively clear-thinking Republican analysts are getting nervous about Bush's Social Security privatization scheme (see today's story in the Washington Post for abundant evidence of this nervousness). They know that the GOP's rather thin electoral margin is completely dependent on the votes of these Sam's Club Republicans (really just another term for white working class Republican voters) and that these voters are not going to take very kindly to the cuts in guaranteed benefits that are an integral part of Bush's plan.

Moreover, the really big dent in GOP support from these benefit cuts appears likely to be in precisely the age brackets where these Sam's Club Republicans are most heavily concentrated. Bush carried voters over 50 last November and did particularly well among those 60 and over, receiving 54 percent of their votes, a 7 point gain over 2000. According to the new Gallup poll, while the public as a whole thinks it would be a bad idea (55 percent) rather than good idea (40 percent) to "allow people who retire in future decades to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market" but "reduce the guaranteed benefits they get when they retire", these negative views are markedly more lopsided among those 50 and over: by 63-33, they think such a scheme would be a bad idea.

How can the Democrats maximize their appeal to these Sam's Club Republicans who are unhappy with the Bush's approach to Social Security? In my view, and E.J. Dionne's, as he outlines in a thoughtful recent column, the Democrats need to go beyond opposition to Bush's scheme and offer a positive alternative:

...Marshall and many Democrats, liberal as well as moderate, argue that the party cannot simply be reactive to Bush. The goal, says Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat, should be to offer alternative policies that deal with larger problems than the ones Bush has chosen to identify.

"We should be for a savings revolution in this country," Emanuel said. "The president's plan isn't big enough. He just wants to rearrange the deck chairs. . . . The public's view is of their insecurity about retirement. It's not about their Social Security. They're worried about what they can't see, not what they can see."

Emanuel and his former Clinton administration colleague Gene Sperling have worked on a series of proposals to create new private retirement accounts for workers without pensions. They would not be carved out of Social Security but financed separately. One way of covering the costs of these accounts: blocking the total repeal of the inheritance tax, as envisioned by Bush, and using the proceeds from levies on large fortunes to help workers who have little savings begin building their own nest eggs.

Such proposals have potential appeal across [Democratic] philosophical lines.

And more importantly, they have potential appeal to Sam's Club Republicans, who are looking for real solutions to retirement insecurity. Democrats should go for it.