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Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

'Absurd': Sanders Campaign Hits Back at AP Story Equating Bernie's Social Security Record With Biden's

"While Joe Biden was calling for cuts to Social Security, Bernie was sponsoring bills to block cuts and expand benefits."

Jake Johnson

Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign is forcefully pushing back against an Associated Press story that equated the Vermont senator's record on Social Security with that of former Vice President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly advocated cutting or freezing the New Deal-era program.

In an email to Common Dreams, Sanders senior adviser Warren Gunnels said AP's framing—or any effort to paint the two presidential candidates' records on the issue as similar—is "absurd," noting that the Vermont senator is a career-long advocate of expanding Social Security, which today provides essential income for tens of millions of Americans.

"Bottom line is I have 40 years of Bernie trying to protect and expand Social Security, and forty years of Biden trying to do the opposite."
—Tyson Brody, Sanders campaign research director

"Joe Biden has done the exact opposite," Gunnels said. "He has a 40-year record of proposing cuts to Social Security [cost-of-living adjustments], raising the retirement age, and means-testing benefits. To suggest otherwise is to completely rewrite history."

AP's reporting centers on the fact that in the 1990s, Sanders—then a member of the House of Representatives—used the word "adjustments" to describe necessary changes to Social Security funding to keep the program solvent for future generations.

"As our population ages," Sanders wrote in a 1996 Burlington Free Press op-ed cited by AP, "it is clear that we will have to make incremental adjustments in Social Security taxes and benefits—as Congress has done in the past."

Biden has also used the word "adjustments"—a vague term critics say is often deployed as a euphemism for "cuts"—when discussing Social Security in the past, including as recently as 2018.

Brian Slodysko, an AP reporter who bylined the Social Security story, tweeted that Sanders "was open to doing much the same" to Social Security as Biden.

The Sanders campaign roundly dismissed the notion that the Vermont senator's use of the term "adjustments" was in any way comparable to Biden's, pointing to Sanders' consistent record of opposing cuts and sponsoring legislation that would expand benefits by hiking taxes on the rich.

In its Bern Notice newsletter Monday, the Sanders campaign provided a detailed fact-sheet outlining Sanders' fight to protect and expand Social Security dating back to 1990, the year he was elected to the House.

"What did Bernie mean by the word 'adjust?' Let's ask him!" Tyson Brody, Sanders' research director, wrote in a series of tweets late Tuesday. "In 1997, Bernie says we must 'adjust' the [Federal Insurance Contributions Act] cap so millionaires and billionaires pay more into Social Security!"

"While Joe Biden was calling for cuts to Social Security, Bernie was sponsoring bills to block cuts and expand benefits," Brody tweeted, citing the Consumer Price Index for Elderly Consumers Act of 1998 (H.R. 4084).

Gunnels also pointed to Sanders' sponsorship of H.R. 4084—as well as H.R. 1422, H.R. 2035, S. 731, and numerous other pieces of legislation—to make clear the senator's decades-long commitment to expanding Social Security, even at a time when both Republicans and Democrats in Congress were advocating cuts.

"Throughout his entire career, Bernie Sanders has made clear that when he talks about 'adjustments' to Social Security, he means expanding benefits," Gunnels told Common Dreams. "Among the first two bills he sponsored during his first term in Congress were bills to protect and expand Social Security benefits. In the 1990-1994 period, he declared that 'entitlement reform' cannot involve Social Security cuts. In 1997, he said we should 'adjust' Social Security by making the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share of taxes, not cutting benefits."

Alex Lawson, executive director of progressive advocacy group Social Security Works, said in a statement to Common Dreams that Sanders "has a decades-long track record of fighting to protect and expand Social Security," noting that he "first introduced Social Security expansion legislation in 1991."

"The corporate media is trying to create a false equivalency between two candidates with very different records on Social Security. The American people shouldn't buy it."
—Alex Lawson, Social Security Works

"He was one of the first members of Congress to oppose a 'grand bargain' deal to cut Social Security," Lawson said.

Lawson added that while it was a "mistake" for Sanders to use the term "adjustments" in 1996—"no politician should use the word 'adjustments' when discussing Social Security because ambiguity is where Washington, D.C. hides bad ideas," Lawson said—Sanders' "overall record is clear."

"In contrast, Vice President Joe Biden has a decades long track record of being open to Social Security cuts, including calling for 'adjustments' as recently as 2018," said Lawson. "The corporate media is trying to create a false equivalency between two candidates with very different records on Social Security. The American people shouldn't buy it."

The response to AP's story comes as Social Security has become a "defining issue" of the 2020 presidential race, particularly as President Donald Trump pushes for deep cuts to the program that could terminate benefits for hundreds of thousands of elderly and disabled people—many of whom rely on Social Security payments as their sole source of income.

Biden, who now says he supports expanding Social Security, has repeatedly offered misleading accounts of his record in the face of criticism from the Sanders campaign and progressive advocacy groups.

"I've been fighting to protect—and expand—Social Security for my whole career," Biden falsely claimed last week at Vice's Black and Brown Forum in Iowa when pressed on his past calls for freezing Social Security payments.

The airing of Biden's Social Security record appears to be having an impact on the former vice president's support among middle-aged and elderly Americans. The Intercept on Tuesday cited a number of recent polls that found support among that crucial age group swinging from Biden to Sanders with the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses less than a week away.

"Though Biden continues to be older voters' candidate of choice, that support is beginning to wane," The Intercept reported. "The most recent Siena College/New York Times survey of likely Iowa caucus-goers found a 17-point swing away from Biden and toward Sanders among those [aged] 45 to 64. Emerson's survey, meanwhile, found an 11-point swing among voters over 50. The new Fox poll found a 10-point swing nationally to Sanders among voters over 45, and the Monmouth survey found a swing of 9 among voters over 50."

In response to the new polling data, Sanders' national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray tweeted, "Focusing on the issues—telling the truth—works."

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