The television ad from U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken depicts him as a stalwart defender of Social Security and his Republican opponent, Sen. Norm Coleman, as willing to jeopardize it.
Released days before Monday's stock market plunge, the ad opens with Franken telling how the father of his wife, Franni, died when she was young, leaving her mother to care for five children.
"They never would have made it without Social Security survivor benefits," Franken says. "I always think about Franni's family when politicians like George Bush and Norm Coleman talk about risking Social Security in the stock market. I will fight any attempt to privatize Social Security."
Does the 30-second spot fairly characterize Coleman's position?
Not quite. But Coleman's refusal to be specific on what he supports -- along with the blurred meaning of "privatize" -- hands Franken a pass on an ad that otherwise might be misleading.
Franken uses the word "privatize" to label plans that would allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security withholding taxes in personal retirement accounts. It's a word conservatives once embraced but later backed away from after realizing it conjured images of more change in the system than Americans desired.
Franken's ad implies that any attempt to "privatize" Social Security would put survivor benefits at risk.
In fact, the kinds of personal accounts under discussion would not directly alter survivor benefits. But in an interview, Franken argued that if the whole financing structure of Security Security became unstable, those benefits would be endangered.
"All the money in Social Security is sort of fungible," he said. "So does [privatization] jeopardize survivor benefits? It jeopardizes survivor benefits as much as it does anything else."
Coleman has over the years voiced support for allowing younger employees to invest a portion of their Social Security withholding taxes in retirement accounts, including one plan outlined by President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union address.
Republicans who support such accounts emphasize that they would be voluntary, limited in size and of moderate risk.
Paula O'Laughlin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota-Morris, called the Franken ad "disingenuous" because the word privatize suggests "a larger, wholesale structural change." Republicans were "not really talking about privatizing it completely. They would give some people some control over some small amount."
But Prof. Joseph Kunkel of Minnesota State University, Mankato disagrees.
"I don't think it's misleading to call it privatization, even though it's partial," said Kunkel, chairman of the political science department. "It's a step, maybe a baby step, but a step away from the social insurance system and toward individual private investment for retirement. It would be taking money that otherwise would go into Social Security and put it into the stock market, which is not risk-free."
Bush's plan would have allowed employees younger than 55 to put as much as two-thirds of their 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax into investment accounts. The remaining third of their Social Security taxes and their employer's full 6.2-percent contribution would continue to go into the Social Security system. There would be a yearly cap on the amount one could divert and prohibitions against early withdrawal.
Participants would see a reduction in government-paid Social Security benefits at retirement to offset the payroll taxes they invested in a personal account. People whose investments beat Social Security's returns would come out ahead; those whose investments lagged would come out behind.
David Walker, former head of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, said such accounts won't save Social Security and could accelerate the retirement system's overall financial problems.
Asked this week for a reaction to Franken's ad, Coleman spokesman Mark Drake said the senator "has no intention of putting Social Security at risk. ... The senator has never supported making Social Security private. ... Senator Coleman has long believed that personal accounts would provide greater economic security and help ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security." Drake said Coleman also would support recommendations of a bipartisan commission on Social Security even if they don't include such accounts.
Drake did not respond to requests to be more specific about Coleman's plan regarding investment accounts.