Wednesday, June 8, 2011 | 1:43 p.m.
Messaging during a campaign is tough, as Rep. Joe Heck can probably attest.
Last week, Heck’s name was in national headlines over an episode every congressman hopes to avoid: a whole town hall ganging up on you over something you say, and then the video of it going viral on the Internet a month later.
The tape shows the town-hall audience burst with objections when Heck calls Social Security a “pyramid scheme.”
So he retracted himself, saying he “misspoke,” but that the program still has problems. He has even gone so far as to distribute fliers explaining his nuanced apology.
But Heck appeared to ricochet back Tuesday, when on CBS Radio’s “The Alan Stock Show,” he told a caller who described Social Security as a pyramid scheme that he was “exactly right.”
Then this morning, on the Heidi Harris talk-radio show, Heck was back on damage control, calling his “pyramid scheme” comment “a poor choice of words.”
Democrats are having a field day with all the pivoting — and waiting to see what Heck will say at the veterans’ town hall scheduled for tonight.
“It’s a good thing Congressman Heck decided to keep his government health care benefits despite opposing health reform,” said Jeremy Funk, spokesman for Americans United for Change, a pro-Democrat campaign organization. “He may need to be treated for whiplash soon, with all the flip-flopping going on here.”
But a spokesman for Heck disputed the entire premise of the Democrats' excitement Wednesday afternoon, explaining that when Heck said "you're exactly right" to the caller on Stock's show, he was referring to the caller's final question: "Why aren’t more people talking about this, and what can Washington do to starting doing something to fix it?", not the caller's earlier comment about the pyramid scheme structure of Social Security.
Since Heck wasn't endorse that comment, his spokesman Darren Littell said, he can't fairly be accused of flip flopping.
"It’s a great question Robert and you’re exactly right," Heck said, before launching into his answer on Stock's show. He did not directly correct the caller's characterization of Social Security as a pyramid structure.
Still, the drama that's built around Heck's apparent gaffe reveals a politician somewhat in limbo between conservatives who want him to endorse the notion that Social Security is a “pyramid scheme” and moderates and liberals who were outraged by the comment.
There is a future problem with Social Security that lawmakers in both parties acknowledge: compared to the way the system was when it was set up, a long-living generation of retirees is creating a growing population of Social Security recipients, and comparatively smaller generations of working-aged Americans are contributing to the pot.
If you wanted to represent that situation in visual form, you’ve got your pick of diagrams. One option is a nice L-shape — the Tetris fans in our reading audience know what I’m talking about — where the long arm is shortening as the ratio of payers to beneficiaries decreases. Or you could represent it as a triangle, where the base of payers-in is narrowing as the ratio shrinks.
But even if a pyramidic shape may be one way to represent a situation, it’s still a far cry to go from pyramid-shaped to pyramid-scheme — which also happens to be illegal. For something to be a pyramid scheme, there must be an intention to bilk, steal and defraud — which, given how many people have drawn benefits from the program (and are expected to until 2037), probably wasn’t the case in 1965.
So we’re back to the merits of whether or not to make changes to the program now, a matter that’s before the bipartisan group of lawmakers considering changes to the fiscal 2012 budget, raising the debt ceiling, and how to bring down mandatory spending.