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Examining McFadden’s charge that Franken uses scare tactics

MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday
Mike McFadden references "scare tactics" used by Al Franken during a 2008 attack against his then-opponent, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.

Cleaning up one matter left over from Wednesday’s post about my interview with GOP U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden: The starting point was a statement on McFadden’s website that said:

The senior safety net is heading towards bankruptcy because of irresponsible politicians like Al Franken who’ve used scare tactics to win elections. We have to take action to preserve this important program for future generations.

I asked McFadden to specify what “scare tactics” by Franken he was referencing. He said it was a 2008 Franken attack against his then-opponent, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman. McFadden’s campaign followed up with a clipping from the Strib during that race assessing a Franken ad.

The topic was Social Security. The ad implied that Coleman supported Social Security “privatization” and that privatization represented a threat to the survivor benefits that are a long-standing feature of Social Security. The father of Franken’s wife, Franni, died when she was a child, leaving Franni’s mother to care for five children.

“They never would have made it without Social Security survivor benefits,” Franken said in the ad. “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.”

The complaints against Franken at the time were:

  1. That Coleman was not clearly supporting the then-current plan for allowing younger workers to divert up to 4 percent of the 6.2 percent FICA tax into “individual accounts” that could be invested.

  2. That the word “privatize” was an inaccurate word to describe the plan.

  3. That the then-current Bush plan was designed to leave the survivor benefit portion of the existing Social Security system untouched.

The silliest complaint is No. 2, the idea (which Republicans were pushing hard at the time) that anyone who described one of these plans as “privatization” was lying. The idea, with which both Bush and Coleman had dallied during the decade previous, had always been called “privatization” (or “partial privatization”). The Cato Institute group that was formed to promote the idea in the 1990s was named the “Project on Social Security Privatization.”  Apparently, at some point during the G.W. Bush years, the Repub word-givers discovered that people responded badly to that word. They have since tried to talk about the same basic idea while avoiding that word and even, as in this case by Coleman, accusing those who used the word of committing some kind of falsehood. “Privatization” may not be perfect, but it is more descriptive of the basic idea than any of the newer substitutes. The Cato group has since been renamed the “Project on Social Security Choice.”

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The idea that Coleman wasn’t supporting the then-current plan to (unspeakable “P” word here) Social Security is awkward. Coleman had supported Bush’s first push to partially privatize Social Security. But heading into his 2008 reelection campaign, he downgraded his support to a statement that privatization was an option that should be “on the table” (the quote in that link is not actually from Coleman but from his campaign manager speaking for him) and that anything to revise Social Security should come from a commission that has considered all the options. It foreshadowed the McFadden position about putting everything on the table but hesitating to endorse the options once they were tabled. In fact, although I negligently failed to ask McFadden where he stood on privatization, MPR reporter Tom Scheck did ask him last year; McFadden said it should be on the table.

Perhaps the strongest part of the complaint against the 2008 Franken ad is that Franken, by bringing up Coleman’s previous support for privatization in the context of Franni’s childhood reliance on Social Security survivor benefits, may have implied that the plan then on the table would have eliminated survivor benefits. Franken didn’t say explicitly that it would. But if he had, that would have been false. The plan then under discussion would have affected retirement benefits, but not survivor benefits. But because of all the vagaries surrounding the Coleman complaints, the Strib’s assessment — written by my esteemed former colleague Pat Doyle — ruled thus:

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.

Does any of this six-year-old history deserve a post now? Maybe not, but because McFadden points to it now as evidence of Franken’s willingness to use “scare tactics,” perhaps it was worth a short refresher.

It’s worth noting that former Sen. Coleman is now a key McFadden backer and adviser, so perhaps the ancient exchange still rankles in those quarters.

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 07/24/2014 - 08:58 am.


    Thank you, Eric. It’s a wonder to see journalism done by an expert.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/24/2014 - 09:22 am.

    Using the word “bankrupt” is a scare tactic.

    Pot, meet Kettle.

    And then, what does “all things are on the table” mean, if not ALL things such as privatization, limiting, removal, and only funding in proportion to payments into the system.

  3. Submitted by mark wallek on 07/24/2014 - 09:33 am.

    Lose lose

    Not that Franken has done much more than look the part, this guy is a lip flapping maestro with evasive skills and a list of corp check writers that is most impressive. I’m sure he’d be an excellent servant to his sponsors. Citizens, on the other hand, should be disgusted by McFadden and very very disappointed in Franken.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/24/2014 - 09:37 am.

    Let’s look at Franken’s words

    “They never would have made it without Social Security survivor benefits,” Franken said in the ad. ”

    The plan that was being discussed to “privatize” social security (I have no problem using that word) was an idea that would allow young people the CHOICE of designating a certain portion of their monthly FICA taxes into a private account for retirement.

    The idea was based on a study in the early 90s that showed that people who would have invested the equivalent amount of money in the stock market over the course of their working career would at age 65 have over a million dollars in that account.

    It was proposed as an idea that should be offered as a choice to young people. This was in response to polls that showed that many young people actually believed (I don’t know if they still do) that social security will not be there for them when they get to retirement age.

    It had zero, nothing, nada, to do with the Social Security survivor benefits and as ill-informed as Al Franken is, I don’t think that even he thought that was the case. His wording was calculated to confuse and scare old people into believing that the plan would affect them and their social security and we all know it.

    McFadden was right in his characterization of Franken.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/24/2014 - 10:40 am.

      That was 20 years ago

      Something’s happened to the stock market since then.
      If you used current numbers things would look very different.
      You also ignore the fact that if you allow people to opt out of a program until they actually need it, you don’t have an insurance program; you have a fee-for-service plan whose economics are very different.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/24/2014 - 10:48 am.

      How many signing statements did Bush do that changed or negated legislation?

      Should we have trusted that SS survivor benefits would continue? And how? Would there have been a separate line item deduct from from the paycheck, so that even if a person opted out of contributing to SS, in general, they would still fund the survivors benefits.

      Everything is on the table means everything.

      It’s all speculation until a bill is written and signed (without a signing statement).

    • Submitted by jason myron on 07/24/2014 - 11:02 am.

      Let’s look at the GOP’s history

      Their entire platform is based on fear. Fear of commies, terror, gays, science, women, immigrants, Islam, change, regulation, Obama, gun confiscation, minorities, the ACA, non carbon based power, etc, etc.
      For you to complain about Franken scaring old people when the entire GOP plan was to scare the same demographic by using blatant falsehoods about the ACA is the height of hypocrisy. What EVERYONE knows is the repubs hated the New Deal, hate SS and Medicare and would love nothing better than to gut those programs tomorrow…TODAY if they could get away with it.

  5. Submitted by Clayton Haapala on 07/24/2014 - 10:46 am.


    “But Coleman’s refusal to be specific on what he supports —”
    Well, that is certainly showing in McFadden’ campaign.

  6. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/24/2014 - 10:54 am.

    And Mr. Tester if that plan had been adopted

    what would those portfolios look like after 2007 -2009?

    Stating that the system is headed to bankruptcy makes it pretty a classic Republican ploy.

    This is the latest CBO report that I could find.

    Being self employed this was my largest tax burden.

    How about removing the cap on earnings.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/24/2014 - 11:20 am.

      It doesn’t matter

      It was a CHOICE to people to use if they were so inclined.

      I don’t know about you but 90% of retirement plans, including those for public employee unions, are invested in the stock market (including horror of horrors, oil stocks! yikes!) so good luck to you all if you think it’s a bad investment.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/24/2014 - 08:14 pm.

        Oversimplified, as usual

        90% of retirement plans have -some- investment in equities, as well as some in the bond market. Most current public employee retirement plans are defined benefit plans, not defined contribution, so the state or municipality provides a buffer for market uncertainties. Most private retirement plans are also defined benefit, although this is changing.
        They also have much more diversification than is possible for the individual investor.
        But the uncertainties of the markets are why the benefits of Social Security, guaranteed by the faith and credit of the United States, are necessary to provide a basic floor for retirement income.

      • Submitted by Jon Lord on 07/27/2014 - 10:13 am.

        one word


    • Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 07/24/2014 - 11:30 am.

      Keep the cap on amount of earnings taxed for Social Security

      Social Security is designed to be a *part* of a retirement income plan.

      It does not have to provide a large income every month–rather, a moderate amount.

      Thus, having a *cap on payouts* (key phrase there !!) means there is also a cap on the funds needed–and that is accomplished by capping the amount of income that is taxable to pay Social Security benefits.

    • Submitted by Alex Seymour on 07/24/2014 - 12:40 pm.


      I am confused – what are you trying to say? The link you posted shows Social Security going into deficit (the politically loaded word is “bankruptcy”) in 2038 and that the situation worsened from last year. To be blunt, the Social Security Fund is seriously underfunded if we applied the same standards we do to private pension funds.

      As to removing the cap – that undermines what Social Security is. It is supposed to be a publicly run pension fund. Like all pension funds, the more you put in the more you take out. Why break that link? It sounds like you want transfer payments to the elderly. That is fine. Buy why limit it only to employment tax? Why not make it means tested? Calling it, and treating it, as “welfare for the elderly” would be more intellectually honest.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/24/2014 - 08:19 pm.

        Social Security was never intended

        to be an investment program.
        That would have been impossible, since it covered all workers from its inception, even those near retirement age who had put nothing in.
        It was always intended to be financed through a trust funded by current workers benefiting retired ones. That’s why it has periodically been adjusted to keep it fiscally viable.

        • Submitted by Alex Seymour on 07/25/2014 - 09:10 am.

          Not a investment, but still a Pension Plan

          I think you missed my fundamental point.

          First, Social Security needs to be rationally funded. It could be either funded by a “pay as you go” method or by investing in real productive economic assets (stocks, bonds). Both have its virtues. However, thanks in part to the baby boomers which were not conceived yet when Social Security was founded, financing this skewed demographic bulge via salary transfers is going to be problematic. Under the current assumptions that Social Security is running under, impossible.

          Second, and more fundamentally, you miss the point that that Social Security at its heart is a pension plan. What you get out depends on what you put in. Sure, “returns” are driven by increase in medium salary increases, not stock market increases. But the fund is not welfare. The plan pays out handsomely to white females thanks to widow survivor benefits. African American males tend to get out less than they pay in due to dying relatively young and single. Nuns get nothing at all because they put nothing in.

          If you break the cap you are breaking the assumption that the plan is a pension plan, leaving a hybrid plan that has the worse characteristics of welfare and a pension plan. Might as well be rational and just move to elderly welfare.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/25/2014 - 02:32 pm.

            I agree

            that Social Security’s funding could be more rational, but if you read your history you will find that it was not introduced as a pension plan; certainly not a defined contribution one.
            And while the trust fund could run into deficit, Social Security payments are still backed by the Treasury. The only problem is an accounting one; how exactly to allocate the necessary funds.
            Finally, Social Security payments do not go to just the elderly and their widows/widowers. Disability benefits are a significant outlay.

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/24/2014 - 11:22 am.

    On an individual basis, retirement benefits from Social Security actually do depend on the size of your paychecks over a lifetime. That way, those with the highest salaries over the years receive a significantly higher monthly/yearly benefit from Social Security than does the average worker. In many cases, most of their salary is not taxed by FICA (lift the lid!).

    Of course, with those higher salaries they probably had money to invest, and probably even had a company retirement program (or the new-ish IRAs [1983] and Roth IRAs [1998] that did not exist for most of the years of my working life). So, with all that extra, non-Social Security income, they have to pay regular wage-based, not hedge-fund-capital-gains-type, income taxes on 80% of those benefits. That taxed Social Security money goes back into the SS Trust Fund.

    Those of us who actually look into Social Security’s features can assure younger workers that Social Security will, indeed, be there for them. The “scare tactics” are those used by folks who want to privatize–i.e., destroy–Social Security. Which is, of course, one of the option that McFadden and his fan Coleman want on the table.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/24/2014 - 11:57 am.

    Scare tactics

    Nothing wrong with using scare tactics if we are right to be scared. I remember how folks like me were accused of using scare tactics when we criticized the far right judicial nominations during the Bush Administration. Turns out, we should have been far more scared than we were at the time.

  9. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/24/2014 - 12:00 pm.


    Isn’t McFadden’s statement in itself a scare tactic?

    “The senior safety net is heading towards bankruptcy because of irresponsible politicians like Al Franken who’ve used scare tactics to win elections.”

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/24/2014 - 04:59 pm.

    Limits to choice

    As an underpaid public school teacher, if the state legislator in the state where I taught had provided me with the choice of opting out of the retirement system, I’d have done so in a heartbeat. My family lived paycheck-to-paycheck for decades, and the percentage taken out for my retirement would NOT – trust me on this – have gone into any sort of retirement account you might think of. When my ex and I divorced after 17 years of marriage, we split our total savings of… $300.

    Fortunately, people with a longer-term horizon than Mr. Tester saw to it that the teachers in that state were required to contribute a percentage of their income to what amounts to a private retirement system, but one in which individuals did not bear the responsibility for doing their own investing. I’m pretty happy about that last part, too, since my stock-and-bond-buying skills are nil.

    Choice might make sense if/when those doing the choosing are fully informed of the consequences of those choices, but accurate information about both public and private retirement systems is one of those things routinely missing from the various analyses of those who like to call themselves “conservative.” Ms. Sullivan is quite correct – as usual – that SS benefits are, up to that income limit point, tied fairly directly to the earnings the retiree contributed to the system while working. My contributions, since most of my income went to a private, state-run system, were minimal. So are my SS benefits, and I barely qualify for benefits at all.

    A 401(k) effectively makes its “owner” a stock speculator, and the number of working people who are outside the financial industry, but nonetheless have the necessary information (not to mention the hardware to make trades in nanoseconds), is very, very small. The “choice” of a retirement plan when one’s income is marginal to begin with, and one’s knowledge of how the system works is similarly minimal, is – at best – a false one, and at worst, it’s a cruel joke. Apparently, Mr. Tester would like to see the poorhouse returned to American society in widespread fashion, thus making the elderly who aren’t wealthy – that is, the vast majority – utterly dependent upon the largess of others. This is a strange viewpoint coming from someone who claims by implication that self-sufficiency is the goal for which we should all be striving.

    I hate restating the obvious, but Mr. McFadden is proving himself to be as ethically bankrupt as it appeared he might be much earlier in the campaign, when he simply refused to state positions. Now that he’s beginning to take at least a tentative stand on a few issues – and given that Mr. Franken seems to have been seduced by the Washington money machine – I’m still of the opinion that McFadden is, by far, the worse choice.

  11. Submitted by John Evans on 07/24/2014 - 09:58 pm.

    So he refuses to answer the question …

    Most Minnesotans think that privatization (or whatever you want to call it) of Social Security should absolutely be off the table. All this talk about his opponent’s “scare tactics” is a way of evading the important, urgent question. If he’s not against privatization, then he’s for it. Until McFadden makes a clear statement opposing privatization, the press has a duty to make him wear the scarlet P.

  12. Submitted by John Evans on 07/25/2014 - 12:32 am.

    If he won’t give us a straight answer…

    You’re right to hold his feet to the fire. Most Minnesotans absolutely oppose privatizing Social Security. If McFadden’s not willing to say he’s against privatization, he’s for it. And it’s the duty of the press to make him wear the Scarlet P.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/25/2014 - 08:56 am.

    Rolling back the 20th century

    Republicans have never believed that anyone should have any retirement plan other than wealth accumulation. And for some reason this “table” of theirs never holds the option of extending or eliminating the income cap on SS withholodings. This is actually a contrived crises, like so many other of the republican hysteria’s. This one, like all the others has been created by a refusal to match revenue with spending.

    Remember while all this was going republican policies also deregulated the financial sector so people lost their retirement investments in the crash. Part of that deregulation put traditional pensions at risk, something house republicans want to do again. And the anti-union pro-financial sector (where does McFadden come from again?) switched the majority of people who actually had any retirement plans out of traditional pensions and into the stock market… we know how that ended up.

    We actually have a very simple fix for this, but republicans prefer magic over simplicity… if yo can get them to admit it.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 07/26/2014 - 11:00 pm.

      Speaking of Scare Tactics

      You must have had your money in a different market than I did… My account went down for ~1 year and now it is at an all time high.

      Legaleze… Please remember that diversification is key to any investment portfolio.

      My take on Franken’s scare tactics are:
      – Mom died of tainted food and he saved people.
      – I had problems and Franken saved me

      He keeps preaching the government dependency.

  14. Submitted by David Rasmussen on 07/28/2014 - 02:07 pm.

    Political Advertising… 99% scare tactics

    I would not single out Al Franken as a practitioner of scare tactics. E-mails I have seen from Franken lately are issue based: pro- net neutrality, anti- merger (Comcast and Time Warner Cable).

    It is interesting how much of the party e-mail is fundraising based and scare based. A nice thing, though, about e-mail lists, is that one can usually unsubscribe without difficulty.

    What they say on TV, I’m sure, is a different matter. Though, given the changing technologies, I kind of wonder if TV ads reach any of the voters.

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