The Club for Growth has a stellar record of challenging liberal Republicans by supporting conservative candidates and causes. Yesterday, the Club’s leaders announced a new target: Senator Lindsey Graham. The Club is launching a two-week advertising campaign against the South Carolina Republican because his Social Security reform plan — while creating personal retirement accounts — would increase the wages subject to the Social Security tax.
As Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, explained: “Lindsey Graham’s proposal of a huge tax increase as part of a reform package would squander this opportunity and do more harm than good.”
Unfortunately, the same could be said of the Club’s anti-Graham campaign.
A key strength of the conservative movement is a willingness to challenge its leaders for straying from conservative ideals — and no group has been as dogged in that mission as the Club for Growth. Yet sometimes this instinct to discipline can become counterproductive. The Club for Growth’s new attack is a fine principle misapplied.
For years, free-market conservatives have urged policymakers to recognize that Social Security’s antiquated pay-as-you-go financing system is both unsustainable and prevents individuals from accruing personal wealth. Transforming this New Deal relic — arguably the greatest engine of government dependency — would be the conservative movement’s greatest accomplishments in decades.
Senator Graham has been among the chief champions of Social Security reform — a cause that President Bush has made his administration’s top economic priority.
Like Graham, the President has taken fire from many Republicans for refusing to take off the table some measures that conservatives vehemently oppose. Most notably, he has not ruled out changing the amount of income subject to Social Security’s payroll tax and encouraging workers to use some money on top of payroll taxes to finance personal retirement accounts.
These are valid concerns. Ultimately, many conservatives may determine that the negotiated package gives too much away to create personal retirement accounts and decide to oppose the legislation. And while conservatives should encourage the Administration and Members of Congress to press for the most principled, free market reforms possible, criticisms of objectionable measures should be only a part of their public message. Right now, with Democrats in lockstep blindly defending the status quo, the priority message must be that Social Security needs fixing and that personal accounts are an important part of any reforms.
Instead, many conservative groups — the Club for Growth is but one example — are spending scarce resources criticizing outspoken advocates of reform. Consider that the Club for Growth is running ads against just two Senators in addition to Graham: Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND). Yet 42 senators have signed a letter refusing to even consider Social Security reform that includes personal accounts. In other words, dozens of lawmakers have pledged to condemn working Americans to massive future tax increases.
The administration and pro-reform legislators like Graham have received little encouragement to continue their politically difficult fight for Social Security reform. They face withering attacks from the predictable liberal interest groups like AARP and MoveOn.org. The mainstream media, meanwhile, salivates over conservative infighting and the perceived problems with reform, but scarcely mentions the irresponsibility of doing nothing to address Social Security’s financial shortfall.
Conservatives, however, should be cognizant of the costs of doing nothing — not just on a policy level, but also politically. Failing to seize the current opportunity for reform would be a significant blow to their movement. After all, if this reform cannot be enacted by a newly-reelected Republican President who campaigned on the issue backed by a Republican Congress, then our hopes are indeed dim. As the Baby Boomers rapidly begin to retire, the policy solutions become more difficult with each passing year. If this cohort of government leaders receives no support from their conservative base, then what politician will champion this cause again?
The Club for Growth and other organizations focused on avoiding any increase in the wages subject to Social Security — and more bizarrely those conservatives who want no mention of benefit reductions — soon will find themselves with a system that demands one of these unsavory options. Make no mistake: Doing nothing would be a monumental victory for liberals. In 15 years, Social Security will begin drawing on general revenues, financed by a highly progressive income tax. When the program is in deficit, personal accounts will be nearly impossible to finance.
There’s a time to criticize and a time to unite. Conservatives need to rally the base to support this most important goal — transforming the New Deal, big government Social Security program to a system based on savings and investment. The time for reform is now. We must not let this opportunity pass.