Hooray for Liberal Fear-Mongering!

The Democrats are running hard on protecting Social Security this election. And while the strategy is tiresome and unoriginal, it’s not without its merits.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Well, there’s a week to go before the election, and the Democrats have zeroed in on their closing argument. Yesterday morning, my in-box was stuffed to the gunwales with alarming messages alerting me to…to what?

To the fact that the Republicans don’t have one decent economic idea in their collective head? To the fact that they don’t want the American people to have decent health care? To the fact that, if Americans elect these people, there’s zilcho chance of passing a gun law in the next decade? No, no, and no.

Instead, the Democrats are reverting to Old Reliable: Social Security. When all else fails, love, sayeth the poet. Say the Democrats: When all else fails, whack them on Social Security.

It’s probably in Alaska that Social Security has been the biggest issue. Republican Dan Sullivan, who leads Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in most polls, says he’s against privatizing Social Security, but he has talked of raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits. Begich has courageously talked of eliminating the payroll tax cap of around $115,000. Polls typically show that Americans by fairly large majorities support Begich’s fix, but that doesn’t mean Alaska off-year election voters support it.

Monday morning, Alison Lundergan Grimes came out swinging with an attack that Mitch McConnell opened himself up to last week. In a speech to a Rotary Club, McConnell said “I spent a year trying to get any Democrat in the Senate” to sign on to George W. Bush’s privatization plan, but he got no takers, not even Joe Lieberman.

Grimes has Elizabeth Warren coming to Louisville to campaign with her today, so one can presume that the populist Warren will bang the Social Security argument drum too, and that it will be a theme of Grimes’s closing week in a race that the experts might have written off a little prematurely.

In Iowa, Democrat Bruce Braley is now up with an ad that shows extremist Republican Joni Ernst saying, “Yes, I have talked about privatizing Social Security.”

In New Hampshire, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is on the air with an ad featuring a 65-ish (i.e. still vigorous-seeming) woman, with a syrup-thick New England accent, talking about Scott Brown’s votes “to cut Social Security and Medicare while protecting tax breaks for millionaires.”

And in Louisiana, the DSCC is paying for an ad in which the narrator (male voiceover this time, barely noticeable Southern lilt) warns the viewer that “millionaire” Bill Cassidy, the Republican challenging Mary Landrieu, wants you to work until you’re 70. Maybe that’s okay for fancy-pants doctors like Cassidy, the narrator says (all right, he doesn’t say fancy-pants doctor), “but we’re on our feet all day, working the rigs, farming the land. Jobs you can’t do at 70.”

Is this all going to work? Well, there’s a reason the Democrats are doing it. Actually there are two reasons. The first is that they’re panicked. But the second is that yes, they’re doing it because it often enough does work. Old people vote in midterms, so it stands a much better chance of having an impact than a last-second student-loan scare. And it’s not a stretch of the facts. McConnell did what he did in 2005, and he was foolish enough to boast about it in public less than two weeks before an election.

It’s just a little hard for me to believe that a new line of attack that doesn’t have anything to do with the current news cycle can shift the dynamics of a campaign with just one week to go. At the very least, this line of attack should have been started last week to give it a chance to gain traction. At this point, probably the only thing that can really flip the dynamic of a particular race is a major gaffe. And who knows, maybe one of these Republicans, confronted with evidence of their privatization enthusiasm, will commit one.

Look, I hope the Social Security strategy works. It may in a couple of cases, and that’s all they need, a couple of unexpected wins, to keep the Senate majority. But at the same time, it’s a little maddening. It’s not as if this year’s Republican Party doesn’t present targets of opportunity. But the Democrats always go to the old standbys. In 2002, it was the prescription-drug benefit election. That was the issue that was supposed to turn the tide that year. Granted, it was just a year after 9/11, and Bush was still riding high, but Republicans gained eight seats in the House and two in the Senate.

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I have a larger theory about why Democrats keep doing this, but I see that I’m four-fifths of the way into this column, and it’s going to take me a lot more than 200 words to explain the theory, so I’ll save that for tomorrow.

But for now I’ll say this. It has often been observed this year that Democratic voters don’t turn out in off-year elections. But why is that true? In part because they’re younger and they may be more likely to think about politics in terms of personalities who come along every four years (i.e. who’s running for president) than in terms of competing interests that are permanent.

But maybe in part it’s because the Democrats aren’t very good at giving them a reason to vote—getting them to see those permanent interests. In my adult lifetime, Republicans have run three good off-year elections: 1994, with the “Contract for America” business, which was new and galvanizing for their side; the aforementioned 2002, when Bush put personal political capital on the line and succeeded in preventing the usual incumbent-party losses; and 2010, when they fed off the tea-party rage.

The Democrats, in contrast, haven’t really run one good one in my lifetime. You might say 2006, when they captured the House and Senate, but it was right after Katrina, Bush was in the toilet, and all they had to do was say “Iraq” (in fairness, what they did well that year was to recruit good candidates).

So clearly, Republicans know something about midterms that Democrats don’t. If the Democrats can’t figure it out, they’ll keep winning presidential elections, maybe, but keep losing majorities in off-years, and the stalemate will continue. And, by the way, eventually, the retirement age actually will go up, because someday this “grand bargain” pressure will prove irresistible, and Republicans like Dan Sullivan and Joni Ernst will have leverage.

So, for now at least, go fear-mongerers.