Social Security:In fight over Social Security, finding the right word is key

Both the Democrats and the GOP agree that Social Security needs reform, but the disagreement lies in whether the program is a 'crisis' or a 'challenge.'

Both the Democrats and the GOP agree that Social Security needs reform, but the disagreement lies in whether the program is a 'crisis' or a 'challenge.'

The President's call for changes in Social Security has started a major war of words between the White House and its opponents, each carefully crafting messages it thinks will sway the American public to its point of view. Pro-reform Republicans say working Americans will be able to own new retirement savings accounts proposed by the President, which will allegedly provide higher returns than Social Security offers now. Bush also insists that Social Security will face dire financial problems soon if changes are not made immediately; he calls it a "crisis." Democrats don't deny the need to strengthen and improve Social Security, but few will use the word "crisis." Instead, they emphasize the investment risks inherent to the accounts the President wants to create. They also talk about government abandoning retirees and cutting benefits under Bush's plan. "It's the battle of the emotional linkages," says Stan Collender, GM of Financial Dynamics' Washington office. "What each side is trying to do is reach people so they feel it in their stomachs. A battle of experts isn't going to do it. But if you can get to the gut, that's where the debate will turn." That need to connect emotionally means the language used will be constantly scrutinized and altered according to ongoing public-opinion research. Both sides are choosing their words carefully, searching for verbal smart bombs that will target the right emotions. Shift away from 'privatization' The White House and its Republican allies have been the first to arm themselves with a new vocabulary. Where once members of the GOP spoke of establishing "private" accounts for workers, now they speak of "personal" accounts - a phrase lacking the political stigma of privatization. Not only has the White House shifted, it's insisting the media do so as well, warning journalists who continue to write or say "private" instead of "personal" that they risk appearing biased against the administration. "The White House has been extremely effective in muscling journalists into not using terms," says Joshua Marshall, a contributing writer for Washington Monthly who writes extensively about the war of words on his blog, "'Private accounts' is verboten now. Seemingly any word derived from 'private' is out." Jonathan Weisman, a financial and economics writer with The Washington Post, has been covering Social Security since the early 1990s. "I can remember when the Republicans were using the term 'partial privatization' exclusively," he says. But he confirms that as the latest debate began, White House staff told him that if he used "private account" or "partial privatization," then "you have signaled you're against the White House." When he asked the White House about its concerns over using the term "privatization," Weisman says he was told simply, "Times have changed." "This has become a war of terminology," Weisman says. He'd like to see media use everyone's terms interchangeably to eliminate the political overtones from each side's phrasing, but knows that's not practical. "When you are writing, you need shorthand to convey complex ideas." Marshall says he's seen other publications change the terminology they use rather than risk being cut out of the information pipeline by angry Republicans or the White House. Marshall and Weisman both recall a change in Republican attitudes toward the word "privatization" going back at least two years. What changed the White House's views on the term was research that showed Americans react negatively to the idea of privatizing Social Security. So expect to hear Democrats saying the plan includes private accounts whenever they can. "I think the language is very important, and it's going to become even more important," says Melissa Skolfield, communications counsel with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader from California. "Democrats and Republicans both realize 'privatization' is a loaded word." One word Democrats won't use in talking about Social Security is "crisis." "Our language is it's a 'challenge,' not a 'crisis,'" says Skolfield. That's because if Americans come to think Social Security is in crisis, "It makes the public more likely to consider radical change," says Bill Samuels, legislative director at the AFL-CIO. "We will admit up front it's a problem," but won't use "crisis." The labor organization is planning a series of town hall meetings across the country during Presidents' Day weekend so senators and representatives at home in their districts can hear what constituents have to say on the topic. His group also plans a major effort to distribute information at work sites across the country, much as it did in the last presidential election, when it handed out 32 million fliers. Rather than target media with its messages, the AFL-CIO plans to go directly to voters with its messages about the dangers contained in the President's proposals. The union, expected to be a highly influential force in this debate, will talk about the impact the President's plan would have on the federal deficit. It will then hammer away at the likelihood it will lead to benefits cuts. "We've found that the more people learn about the cut in guaranteed benefits, the less they like it," Samuels says. Conservative messaging "I think the President's made some progress already in convincing the public to think there is a problem," says Rick Reed, a partner with Stevens Reed Curio & Potholm, an Alexandria, VA-based Republican public affairs firm. Republicans are talking about strengthening the system with the President's plan, Reed says. They are talking up the higher investment returns that even a financially conservative mixture of stock and bond funds could produce, compared to the returns that people get today. "The numbers too, I think, will be part of the debate," Reed says. Talking about market returns can blunt Democratic claims that changes will hurt retirees, he believes. "Typically, Democrats have tried to scare seniors on this issue." Virginia-based Creative Response Concepts (CRC) is working with two clients on the Social Security issue, the Free Enterprise Fund (FEF) and the United Seniors Association (USA). The FEF was established this year by Stephen Moore, former president of the Club for Growth, with the purpose of lobbying for Republican positions on economic issues. CRC SVP Keith Appell is trying to book Moore on TV and radio shows, where he can make a case for the President's plan. He's also preparing op-ed pieces for newspapers across the country. USA is targeting the AARP, saying it's a liberal organization that does not represent the views of conservative members. Its goal is to lure away 1 million AARP members and in the process show that not all seniors support AARP's position, which is firmly against Bush's reforms. AARP won't get into a name-calling match with USA, says communications director Lisa Davis. "There are people who want to paint us one way or the other," she says. "AARP is focused on the issues. "We don't want the solution worse than the problem," Davis continues, and that's what the group's messaging will reflect. AARP sees the President's plan as cutting guaranteed benefits and passing the bill to future generations. Weisman expects to hear the White House continue to hammer at the idea of Social Security approaching a financial crisis, even if the word "crisis" isn't used. "The White House has determined the word 'bankrupt' will be in their lexicon," he says. With the latest polls showing that less than half of the public is sold on the President's plan, despite a State of the Union address devoted almost entirely to selling it, one can only guess which words will come out before this debate is over.

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