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Monday, December 5, 2016

After two debates, progressives are left with more questions than answers about the fate of one of our most important social programs.

It’s been a few decades since then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill first referred to Social Security as “the third rail of American politics,” but judging from the way the candidates in this election have avoided the subject, it still has plenty of juice left. There was a brief dustup last fall when Rick Perry claimed the program was a Ponzi scheme, but his subsequent flameout in the Republican primaries was so spectacular that the details were quickly forgotten. Since then, most of the focus has understandably been on Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare’s guaranteed benefit into a voucher that grandma and grandpa can add to their coupon clippings. If we’re really lucky, sometimes we even get to debate the wisdom of dismantling Medicaid. But in the last two debates, the candidates have made statements about Social Security that raised more questions than they answered and suggested that the program’s future may be in doubt regardless of the election’s outcome.

Aside from the fact that President Obama seemed to have downed an entire bottle of Nyquil before his first debate with Mitt Romney, one of progressives’ biggest gripes about his performance concerned his decision to take Social Security off the table. “You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound,” Obama said last Wednesday, adding that “It’s going to have to be tweaked” but “the basic structure is sound.” That raises two questions: First, do they actually agree, or was Obama overcome by the spirit of compromise that sometimes compels him to give his opponents the benefit of the doubt when they’ve done nothing to earn it? Second, and perhaps even more importantly, exactly what sort of “tweaks” would the candidates support?

Sadly, we didn’t learn the answers to either of these questions, since moderator Jim Lehrer is allergic to follow-ups, but commentators on the left have hazarded a few guesses, and most of them aren’t very optimistic. Writing at The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner makes one of the stronger cases for why we should worry about Obama’s commitment to preserving Social Security benefits. He notes that Romney has pledged no changes to Social Security for those in or near retirement, which carries the unsubtle implication that everyone else is probably screwed. But Kuttner argues that instead of going on the attack, the Bowles-curious Obama “is softening up public opinion to accept very similar cuts” and “giving away what should be one of the clearest differences with Romney.” Dean Baker concurs that “tweak is a code word used by people who want to cut Social Security but lack the courage to say it explicitly.”

While it might be safer to assume the worst, it would be more charitable to read Obama’s comments as an acknowledgment that there are policy tweaks that would genuinely strengthen Social Security. Jeff Madrick provides a good overview of some ways we could extend the program’s solvency without reducing benefits or raising the retirement age. He also notes that Social Security is in no real danger and that fixing its finances is a fairly easy task, even though it’s often lumped in with Medicare and Medicaid as part of an all-encompassing “entitlement crisis.” But raising the cap on payroll taxes doesn’t seem to be the type of tweaking Romney has in mind, and even with no changes the program is projected to pay out full benefits for another 21 years. So why wouldn’t Obama choose to heighten the contrasts instead of conceding the argument before it’s begun?

That question only became more urgent at last night’s vice presidential debate, as Paul Ryan defended his support for privatization. Responding to moderator Martha Raddatz’s comment that “Medicare and Social Security are going broke” (they’re not), Ryan agreed that “these are indisputable facts” (see above) and argued that “if you reform these programs for my generation, people 54 and below, you can guarantee they don’t change for people in or near retirement.” Well, that’s great for them, but what does it mean for the rest of us who were sort of planning on growing old one day?

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