Republican Norm Coleman's U.S. Senate campaign is accusing incumbent Democrat Sen. Paul Wellstone of using scare tactics in a new television ad about Social Security. Wellstone is standing behind the ad and some political analysts disagree on whether the Wellstone's social security message is misleading.
The ad, paid for directly by Wellstone's reelection campaign, began airing throughout Minnesota last week. It's a dramatic, 30-second spot with tight shots of Wellstone reflecting on Wall Street's downturn, then expressing dismay about what he says are proposals to invest the Social Security Trust Fund in the stock market.
"What's really troubling now is that there are still so many people that are pushing to put Social Security Trust Fund money into the stock market," Wellstone says.
The ad goes on to say the Senate will have to choose whether to privatize Social Security.
The ad doesn't mention Republican Norm Coleman, but Coleman's campaign is accusing Wellstone of trying to scare senior citizens by distorting the debate over Social Security.
"There is no money from Social Security Trust going in anybody's proposal. So this is a lie," says Coleman campaign manager Ben Whitney.
But it's a little more complicated than that. Like many Republicans, Coleman is on record supporting the idea of allowing people -- his campaign says people 50 or younger -- to invest a small portion -- less than ten percent -- of their Social Security withholding into private retirement accounts.
Coleman's campaign says the private accounts would be strictly voluntary. He insists the plan he's backing could be put in place without cutting any benefits to current Social Security recipients.
Campaign manager Whitney says rather than address projected Social Security shortfalls, Wellstone and other Democrats around the country are distorting the issue.
"They literally want to use this as a political tool to get themselves re-elected and I think that that's shameless and it's something that he and his campaign should stop immediately," says Whitney.
But Wellstone seems perplexed at the charge his ad is misleading. "The ad is right on the mark," he says.
The Wellstone campaign says it has no intention of pulling the Social Security ad. Wellstone maintains money can't be diverted into private accounts, without cutting benefits. And Wellstone says Coleman doesn't understand that.
"That's a bit misleading. As far as I know no major Republican leader is advocating taking current trust fund money and placing it in the stock market and then leaving it to the stock market for current retirees."
- Steve Smith, political science professor
"If you enable people now working to take two percent out or whatever, then you have the problem of transition costs, then you're taking almost immediately like up to a trillion dollars out of the system, in which case the people that are elderly are going to be faced with either not being eligible or they're going to have their benefits cut. So that's what people in Minnesota can decide on," Wellstone says.
But Wellstone's ad does not make that point. And Washington University political scientist Steve Smith, says Wellstone's ad is misleading on two fronts. First, on the ad's charge about calls to invest the Social Security Trust Fund in the stock market. "That's a bit misleading. As far as I know no major Republican leader is advocating taking current trust fund money and placing it in the stock market and then leaving it to the stock market for current retirees," according to Smith.
Smith also says the Wellstone ad oversimplifies the Social Security debate by boiling it down to a choice between the status quo and privatization. "So in those two ways the ad's a bit misleading. Nevertheless Sen. Wellstone is right that there are Republicans in Washington who are advocating an important foundation of the Social Security system to date, and that is it's a social insurance program, not an investment account," Smith says.
Minnesota State University Professor Joe Kunkel sees no problem with Wellstone's ad. Kunkel notes, advocates of private accounts only recently have begun distancing themselves from the "privatization," label.
"Whether it's going to be total privatization or whether you're going to take only two percent of the payroll tax, you're still taking some of the payroll tax and going to investing it in the stock market, and that I think what was a commonly known as privatization before. SO I think the fact that they want to run away from that label 'privatization' shows how dangerous they see this issue for them," he says.
Coleman isn't the only candidate this year who has supported giving people the option of investing some of their Social Security withholding.
Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny served on commission appointed by President Bush that looked at the issue. The panel recommended three approaches, all involving the creation of private accounts but noted that even with investment options Social Security will still be strapped for money as the baby boomers reach retirement.More from MPR