Social Security should be a worthy topic for Democratic primary debates

The CNN debates at the end of July included no questions about Social Security

By Max Richtman, President & CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare

Given Social Security’s importance to all Americans, you can imagine my surprise that none of the moderators in the first two rounds of Democratic debates asked a single question about it.  Our nation faces a retirement crisis, with savings rates plummeting, pensions vanishing, and expenses in old-age soaring.  63 million Americans rely on Social Security today for basic financial stability, yet conservatives propose to cut future benefits. The father of Social Security is one of the most revered Democratic presidents.  And yet not a single mention of the program during the first two sets of primary debates by the party of Franklin Roosevelt?

Many in the news media have bought into the narrative that “no one in Washington wants to talk about Social Security” because it is a politically sensitive issue. Maybe that’s one reason why they don’t ask the question during debates. This narrative holds that neither party is willing to address Social Security’s long-term future. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Democrats in Congress, including Representative John Larson (D-Conn.) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have introduced legislation that maintains the program’s financial health for as long as most of us on earth today are likely to be alive.  They achieve this mainly by insisting that the wealthy pay their fair share of Social Security payroll taxes.  Congressman Larson’s bill, which has 210 cosponsors in the House, also expands benefits – and both bills provide for a more accurate and generous cost of living adjustment formula.

After the first round of debates on MSNBC in June, I sent a letter to the moderators of the next debates on CNN (held at the end of July), imploring them to raise the topic of Social Security. I even suggested a question they could ask:

“Social Security will experience a funding shortfall in 2035 when the Trust Funds are scheduled to run out, triggering an automatic 20% benefit cut for all recipients.  As President, will you put forward a proposal to extend the program’s solvency and, if so, will you choose to do this using benefit cuts or revenue increases?”

But when I tuned into the CNN debates on July 30 and 31st, the issue of Social Security never came up during some 240 minutes of back-and-forth between the candidates.  The moderators had clearly not heeded calls for a question on this vital program.

This is an ironic omission, since the Democratic candidates talk quite frequently about Social Security on the campaign trail.  Joe Biden told a seniors’ forum in Iowa that “we should be increasing, not decreasing, Social Security.”  Senator Elizabeth Warren has railed against Social Security cuts and privatization.  Bernie Sanders introduced the aforementioned Social Security Expansion Act in the U.S. Senate.  Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Corey Booker have all emphasized the need to boost and strengthen the program.

Voters shouldn’t have to do a Google search to see where the candidates stand on an issue that can make the difference between financial stability and outright poverty in old age.   We deserve to hear the contenders’ positions on Social Security on the debate stage. After all, the eventual nominee will face a president in the general election who won in 2016 partly by promising to “protect your Social Security.”

Of course, since taking office, President Trump has done nothing to keep that promise. In fact, his last two budget blueprints have included billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance, which his budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, insists is “not really part” of Social Security. Meanwhile, many so-called “entitlement reformers” in the president’s party have been insisting that Social Security “reforms” should cover the cost of the Trump/GOP tax cuts of 2017, which are swelling federal red ink (even though Social Security is self-funded and does not contribute to the federal debt).  Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) made headlines this month by proposing that the two parties get together “behind closed doors” to fix Social Security.  We all know what that means.

Americans need precisely the opposite: for Social Security to be discussed in the sunlight – especially on the debate stage – so that the voters can assess the candidates’ proposals, and gauge their commitment to the cause.  Are they just paying lip service to it, or are they serious about standing up to the “entitlement reformers” and boosting the program America’s for current and future seniors?  I have just sent a letter to the moderators of tonight’s ABC News debate, urging them to ask at least one question about Social Security.  Let’s hope the third time will be the charm.