Social Security: The GOP vs. the American People

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Social Security: The GOP vs. the American People

"There were no friends of Social Security on the Miami debate stage," writes Nancy Altman. (Photo: Getty/Joe Raedle)

In case anyone had any doubts, the most recent Republican presidential debate made crystal clear how out of touch the Republican establishment is with the American people.

Social Security is extremely popular with the overwhelming majority of Americans - whatever their Party affiliation, age, race, ethnicity, gender, or economic status. Social Security represents the best of American values. It is responsibly funded, does not add a penny to the deficit, and only pays benefits if it has sufficient income to cover not only the cost of all benefits, but also the cost to administer those benefits.

The American people recognize that expanding Social Security is a solution to, among other challenges, a looming retirement crisis. Traditional pensions are disappearing, the 401(k) retirement savings experiment is a failure, and middle class wealth in the form of home equity vanished overnight in the Great Recession.

Social Security is the most efficient, universal, secure and fair source of retirement income. It provides basic economic security when wages are lost as the result of death, disability, or old age. Its one shortcoming is that its benefits are too low. That is why there is a growing movement to expand those benefits.

The Republican establishment will have no part of this profoundly wise policy. They want to cut benefits. The moderators at Thursday's debate elicited this response from three of the four candidates in questions premised on what a Washington Post Plum Line contributor afterward characterized as a Zombie lie - that Social Security is going to "run out of money." (Revealingly, as part of the same discussion on Social Security, one of the two moderators, Dana Bash, cited information she received from a Washington group backed by a billionaire, Peter G. Peterson, who has spent decades on a crusade to cut Social Security.)

Against wise policy and even smart politics, three of the four candidates -- Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz, and supposed-moderate, Governor John Kasich -- expressed their strong desire for huge Social Security benefit cuts.

Senator Rubio advocated raising the retirement age to 70 (a 21 percent across the board benefit cut), in addition to other cuts to the benefits of middle class Americans. This, despite the fact that Millennials, faced with stagnant wages and mounting student debt, will need Social Security even more than their parents and grandparents.

Showing just how out of touch he is, Rubio stated that under his plan, "I'd have to retire at 68. If I were still in the Senate, I'd be one of the youngest people there." He apparently doesn't understand how privileged he is. The overwhelming majority of Americans have very different work experiences than politicians! Many, like construction workers, waste collectors, kindergarten teachers, cashiers, nurses, and so many others do not have the cushy jobs of those whom they have elected to represent them.

Senator Cruz, for his part, doubled down on the failed ideas of privatizing Social Security and enacting a stingier cost of living adjustment. He is still pushing a stingier measure, despite the fact that the current cost of living adjustment already under-measures the cost of living of seniors and people with disabilities. This year, there is no cost of living adjustment. I guess Senator Cruz thinks that a zero increase is too high.

The question to Governor Kasich reminded him that he had told a New Hampshire voter, who objected to Social Security cuts,, to "get over it!" Kasich did not back away from his outrageous taunt to an American who, in his question, represented the view of millions of Americans who have earned their Social Security. Kasich provided no coherent answer or specifics on the debate stage, but he did mention his support for privatizing Social Security when he was in Congress.

Donald Trump was the only one on the debate stage to side with the American people, not Wall Street. He reiterated his opposition to all cuts, including raising the retirement age. Politically shrewd, but there is reason to doubt that he is committed to that view.

His language in the debate was full of weasel words designed to allow a reversal, once elected - "I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security." "It's my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is." "I want to leave Social Security as is." (Emphasis added.) In stark contrast to both Democratic presidential contenders, Trump did not make an unqualified statement that "I won't cut Social Security." Noteworthy, since Trump has certainly shown that he knows how to make unequivocal statements, when it suits him.

Trump's past history on Social Security also encourages skepticism of his current "no cuts" pledge. Back in 2011, Trump expressed support for a bipartisan deal to cut benefits, saying that he supported cuts as long as the Republican Party was shielded from political accountability by getting Democrats on board. In his 2000 book The America We Deserve, Trump referred to Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" and endorsed raising the retirement age. (Like Rubio, he took his personal experience as the norm, stating "Like a lot of people I know, I plan to work forever.") He also advocated handing the program over to Wall Street by privatizing it. The only thing that's clear about Donald Trump's position on Social Security is that he clearly can't be trusted.

There were no friends of Social Security on the Miami debate stage. Other than Trump's statements against cuts, the positions were perfectly in line with the Republican establishment and the billionaire-donor class.

The new Republican Speaker of the House, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is frequently described as a thought-leader of the Republican Party. Like those on the debate stage, he favors raising the retirement age, cutting benefits across the board through changing the benefit formula, imposing a stingier cost of living increase, and privatizing the program.

Strikingly, Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX), Paul Ryan's successor as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently spoke about the "need" to raise the retirement age to 70, cut, or even eliminate benefits for middle class workers, and enact a stingier cost of living increase. Brady made it very clear that Congressional Republicans are eager to pass Social Security cuts at the first opportunity.

Even Donald Trump, who now advocates no cuts to Social Security, including no increase in the retirement age, apparently does so defensively. In that Miami debate, he defended his no cuts stance by reminding everyone:

"I want you to understand that the Democrats... want to increase [Social Security]. They want to actually give more. And that's what we're up against. And whether we like it or not, that is what we're up against."

That is indeed what they are "up against." The two Democratic presidential candidates, in clear contrast to the Republicans, favor expanding, not cutting Social Security. So do 90 percent of the Democrats in the Senate and 75 percent of the Democrats in the House. So do the overwhelming majority of Americans, including 65 percent of Republicans. In contrast, even Donald Trump, who is seeking to promote a populist message, opposes expanding Social Security.

So, the American people will have a clear choice this November, no matter who the nominees are. The Democrats are united in favoring expanding, not cutting, Social Security. The Republicans stand against expanding, and with the exception of Trump, for deep cuts to Social Security.

The choice couldn't be clearer. For voters who care about a strong economic floor of protection for themselves, their families, their communities, and their nation, I hope they vote for those who recognize Social Security as the important solution that it is.

Nancy Altman

Nancy J. Altman has a thirty-five year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. She is co-director of Social Security Works and co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition and campaign. She is the author of The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble (John Wiley & Sons, 2005) and co-author (with Eric Kingson) of Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It will Help Us All (The New Press, 2015).

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