After last week’s comments from President Trump during an interview, it should be clear to Democratic presidential candidates where the real threat to Social Security lies – and it is not within their party.
The president who once promised as a candidate “not to touch” seniors’ earned benefits told CNBC that he would “look at” cutting ‘entitlements’ because it’s “the easiest of all things.” The next day, following an instant backlash, the president pivoted and accused Democrats of trying to “destroy Social Security,” a statement that could only be true in an alternate reality.
In fact, Democrats not only are the party that created Social Security in 1935 but have repeatedly defended the program from attempts to undermine and privatize it ever since. In recent decades, some centrist Democrats joined Republicans in entertaining the idea of ‘reforming’ Social Security by raising the retirement age or reducing annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). We and other seniors’ advocates proudly and successfully opposed those efforts.
Today, the Democratic party is nearly unified behind the cause of boosting benefits and strengthening the program’s finances for the long-term future. That’s why it makes little sense for the Democratic presidential candidates to attack each other on Social Security policy. Their focus needs to be on the here and now.
While it’s true that none of the candidates has a longer or more consistent record of fighting to preserve the program than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), there is a common thread between his policy proposals and those of Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). All would adjust the payroll wage cap so that higher-income earners contribute their fair share. Each candidate also proposes adding benefits boost to prevent lower-income seniors from slipping into poverty.
Most Democrats have rallied around comprehensive legislation to expand Social Security while putting the program on a stable fiscal path for the future. Is there much doubt that if the next Congress were to pass such a bill that a Democratic president would sign it? In any case, minor policy differences could be worked out in good faith. Disagreements from decades past likely would give way to consensus.
Now let’s look at what some fiscal conservatives have proposed, including President Trump’s closest advisors. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, economic advisor Larry Kudlow, and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have called for “entitlement reform” to help pay for the debt-swelling Trump/GOP tax cuts. In conservative parlance, “entitlement reform” is code for cutting Americans’ Social Security and Medicare benefits by direct or indirect means. (Raising the retirement age, for example, is a benefit cut. So is adopting a more miserly COLA formula.)
They must speak in coded language because Social Security is overwhelmingly popular and the majority of Americans do not want to see it cut. Perhaps that’s why GOP Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) suggested last September that Congress meet “behind closed doors” to determine Social Security’s future.
Despite candidate Trump’s promises to leave Social Security untouched, the President’s budget proposals have called for billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which Mick Mulvaney disingenuously declared was not really part of Social Security. The White House attempted to cut staffing for the beleaguered Social Security Administration (SSA), which has been struggling to provide beneficiaries with even basic customer service.
Should President Trump be re-elected in November, the administration and its allies in Congress will be even more emboldened to pursue “entitlement reform.” Last summer, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told a reporter, “We’ve brought it up with President Trump, who has talked about it being a second-term project.” This is a stark reminder of what’s at stake in 2020, and why it’s more important for Democrats to call out President Trump and his party regarding their true intentions for Social Security, rather than squabbling among themselves.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a membership organization that promotes the financial security, health and well being of current and future generations of maturing Americans. He also chairs the board of the National Committee’s Political Action Committee, a PAC that endorses candidates for federal office.