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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Analysis: Reichert Social Security “Town Hall” Meeting

I had the privilege of attending last night’s “town hall” forum with Congressman Dave Reichert of the 8th District, moderator Jim Vesely of the Seattle Times, a panel of Republicans selected to sell the idea of privatization, and a boisterous crowd which frequently interrupted the discussion with shouts and hard nosed questions.

I’m going to share my thoughts on the event and how it went.

As I entered the building, a volunteer from “FreedomWorks” (a conservative organization led by people such as Dick Armey who favor privatization) gave me some literature which attempts to present the concept of privatization in a tame manner.

The literature was prepared by the “American Institute for Full Employment”, which is basically an Oregon version of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation focusing on a number of selective issues, among them Social Security. The pamphlet, as I discovered, uses several images also found on the FreedomWorks website. (Big surprise there!)

The most interesting thing in this pamphlet was a letter from Jose Pinera, the former Secretary of Labor and Social Security in Chile. The letter is basically an attempt to persuade people to support privatization. At the top of this "open letter" (written in 2002) was a header which read: IT CAN BE DONE BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN DONE.

Yes, I would have to agree with that statement – it is certainly possible to cripple and then destroy Social Security, and it definitely can be done, because it has already been done in the past in other countries with their pension and retirement programs.

After I signed in, I walked down to the auditorium, which was only about a third full. I didn’t recognize any other Democrats there and I was worried I’d have to suffer though a couple hours of recycled Republican talking points without any serious opposition. Fortunately, this turned out not to be the case.

I took out my notebook and thumbed through all the nifty propaganda I’d just collected and wrote down a few quick thoughts. Before long, people were streaming into the auditorium. I met some friendly folks from the Washington State Labor Council. By now, quite a number of Democrats had come in wearing stickers that read I Love Social Security.

Two rows ahead of me, an annoying young Republican (whose name, I believe, was Owen King) sat down and immediately belted out, “Let’s get rid of the Social Security program! Woo hoo!” Mr. King apparently believes that Social Security is illegal. He must be even further to the right than Grover Norquist.

After the auditorium filled up (there were at least 350 people), Bellevue Mayor Connie Marshall opened the forum and introduced Congressman Reichert, who spoke briefly, then introduced the panel members:

Paul Guppy (of the right wing Washington Policy Center), Rob Nichols from the Treasury Department (and a presidential appointee to boot) and lastly, Sally Canfield, representing Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

These people were supposed to be the “experts” who would answer questions written by audience members on comment cards. All three of them, of course, support privatization and emphasized their support for it in their answers.

Next, we were introduced to James Vesely from the Seattle Times, who served as the forum moderator.

In his opening comments, Vesely said: “I must distance myself from this panel because the Seattle Times editorial board disagrees with the Bush administration on this issue.”

Immediately this drew a huge and extensive roar of applause from throughout the audience. It was, in fact, the loudest applause of the evening.
Reichert, who was looking at the audience, seemed to be a little shell shocked at this reaction. His face seemed blank, and he wore a sour smile.

Judging from that applause alone, the majority of the crowd seemed to be opposed to President Bush’s privatization plan, which was certainly a good sign.

Shortly after that, Vesely made another remark in which he referred to “Republican Bellevue”. This drew a loud response from the audience, with a number of Democrats shouting in unison, “NOT ANYMORE!”

And sure enough, the crowd remained boisterous throughout the entire event. Not to be outdone, of course, a number of Republicans began answering some of the Democrats in the audience who were interrupting the panel.

The “panelists” were clearly trying to sell the idea of private accounts as gently as possible, and it seemed Reichert was trying to do a bit of the same thing. Reichert repeatedly mentioned that all proposals were on the table.

When the panelists tried to shoot down some of the counterproposals to privatization, the crowd erupted in anger and they backed down.

Medicare was also brought up, and the panelists spent some of the time defending the bill Congress passed in 2003, which, as we know, basically gives more money to companies like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.

Vesely tried to challenge the panel as often he could, but since it was all Republicans, the discussion was one sided unless a particular comment garnered an angry response from the audience, at which point the panelist speaking would back down.

Paul Guppy, the first panelist, tried to present himself as a nonpartisan expert of sorts, an “analyst”. But he couldn’t restrain himself from promoting privatization. “Social Security,” declared Guppy, “has been an excellent program in the past, but now, its future is not sustainable.”

His attempt to sell “personal” accounts fell flat with the audience.

And he made a number of utterly stupid comments. One particular dumb comment came when he was trying to make a point about the fact that we can’t trust the federal government with our tax dollars, in which he asked, “What if the Post Office ran supermarkets?” and concluded how disastrous it would be.

He was trying to compare it to Social Security, but his point got drowned out in a roar of disagreement as Democrats shouted him down.

The second panelist, Rob Nichols, (from the Treasury Department) was no better. He also was presented as an “expert”, though he didn’t hide the fact that he is a Bush presidential appointee.

Half the time Nichols was speaking, people had to shout at him to speak up because he apparently wasn’t loud enough for those in the back of the audience.

I actually thought this was fairly amusing, because Nichols kept having to start over, and he would always say, “Let’s take half a step back” when he was trying to explain something.

Well, maybe we should take a whole step back and throw privatization off the table.

Then there was Sally Canfield from Speaker Hastert’s office. She didn’t offer any valuable insight either, and it was clearly apparent that she was there to help push the agenda.

All three “panelists”, as well as Reichert, tried to say over and over that “all options are on the table”. Of course, we know this isn’t really true. The administration considers every other idea to be a non-option.

People brought up alternative ideas, such as raising the $90,000 cap on salary taxed for Social Security, raising the retirement age, creating “add on” accounts, and so forth.

The panel shot them all down. Raising the cap was portrayed by all three as a tax hike, which they oppose because “the government shouldn’t be taking any more out of families’ hard earned budgets.”

There was a huge cheer when someone asked a question about the transition costs. Guppy tried to skip around the transition costs and failed when Democrats in the audience started shouting him down again.

He put up his hands a number of times, almost as if he was trying to shield himself from those in dissent.

Nichols also tried to say there were no transition costs. He tried to claim that the 10 year projection of $750 billion was not new costs - more like "prepaying a mortgage", he said.

Of course, that caused another audience uproar. Then Nichols tried to defend what he'd said as "factual", and that brought laughter, echoing around the auditorium.

All three panelists used the phrase from the title of the FreedomWorks literature, “Building a Nest Egg for You and Your Grandchildren”.

They used the words “nest egg” over and over in their answers, trying to build in that conservative frame.

They also touted the Thrift Savings Plan, but the audience wasn’t much impressed by that either.

Even though saying “all options are on the table” is a deception, it was a wise strategy for them to avoid selling privatization outright.

If they had just tried to sell private accounts to the audience, I doubt Democrats would have been able to contain themselves. I probably wouldn't have been able to. I did seriously consider joining some of the other, more vocal Democrats.

And in fact, there were plenty of people who spoke out whenever they wanted. I didn’t, but many others did, and occasionally the moderator, James Vesely would challenge the panel to answer very pointed questions from Democrats.

I have to say that Vesely was good at challenging the panel. He did pick out a number of tough questions for the panel to answer, often remarking, “You know, fifty people have asked this same question on their comment cards.”

Of course, since there were no Democrats on the panel, the answers weren’t very good. There wasn’t much a dialogue because the three panelists rarely dissented with each other, and when they did, it was generally just a small difference in personal perspective.

But Reichert did admit that privatization wouldn’t help Social Security, remarking, “Personal savings accounts do not address the solvency issue of Social Security.”

At least he had the nerve to say that. It was one of the most truthful statements I heard all night long from the folks up at the front, with the exception of Vesely, who represented the audience well.

I think the forum certainly showed Reichert that his district isn’t very Republican any more. He ought to be careful in how he approaches this issue. If he isn’t, he could find himself out of office in two years.

I was glad I went to the forum. I think it was a victory for Democrats and it gave us a chance to voice our opposition to Bush’s Social Security privatization plan and vent about all the lies they’ve been putting out there.

And it was certainly fun to watch Guppy, Nichols, and Canfield squirm under pressure from the audience.

If you have a chance to go to one of these forums (especially if your congressman or congresswoman is a Republican) then do make a point of going. Ask questions. Be politely provocative.

Don’t let these people get away with presenting only one side of the issue.

We still have work to do, but our efforts so far are paying off. Democrats need to remain unified on this issue, and we need to pressure moderate Republicans to break ranks and split with their party leadership.

And that’s exactly what we did last night at Reichert’s “town hall” meeting. We are making these events work to our advantage. All part of our strategy to show people that there really is no crisis with Social Security.

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