Political Drama: From Protecting Social Security To Gutting It

The author says that playing politics with Social Security has led to serious consequences for the program.

“Statements by President Trump and top Democratic presidential candidates in recent days have thrust Social Security into the middle of the 2020 campaign.”

~ Washington Post

Last week I lamented that the issue of Social Security has gone 0 for 7 in the Democratic debates. I felt, and still do, that lawmakers need to focus more the program’s long-term stability, and the media needs to hold our elected officials to account. Nothing suggests to me that either is happening.

This week, the program is drawing fresh attention from heavyweight news outfits like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, plus a range of political outlets because of comments coming from leaders in both parties.

Unfortunately, the news reports and opinion pieces tell you more about the breakdown of the debate than the direction of the program. Social Security is just a prop for wedge politics.

There are two underlying stories here: President Trump made comments in an interview with CNBC’s Joe Kernen about the size of entitlement spending. 

Elsewhere, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have exchanged barbs over comments about Social Security that date back decades. (The best coverage of the stories seems to be in the Washington Post.)

In the first story, Trump seems to suggest that he might consider revamping entitlement programs after the election. (the words Social Security never appear in the interview.) Almost overnight, writers inserted “Social Security” into the story as an example of an entitlement. 

Then articles stated that the President was open to cutting Social Security. Outlets like Forbes ran pieces that said Trump said Social Security cuts were on his agenda. By the time the story reaches outfits like Huffington Post, Trump has committed to gutting the program. 

Now the media claims that Trump is attempting to “walk-back” comments that he never actually made. Consider this excerpt from President Trump’s interview with Joe Kernan:

Will Entitlements Be On Your Plate?

At some point they will be. We have tremendous growth. We’re going to have tremendous growth. This next year I—it’ll be toward the end of the year. The growth is going to be incredible. And at the right time, we will take a look at that. You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things, if you look, cause it’s such a big percentage.

I have no idea what he is saying. The words “Social Security” do not appear in the entire interview. There is nothing here about cuts.

Instead of reporting the news, the media is conflating news with analysis (guesswork) such that the news can be sold in the eyeball marketplace on the internet – to great effect by the way. 

In a separate but similar story, Sanders has questioned Biden’s commitment to Social Security. In return, Biden has accused Sanders of distributing “doctored” videos, edited to make it appear that Biden has “advocated for Social Security cuts for 40 years”. Paul Krugman summarized this story best: “The Sanders campaign has flat-out lied …, and it has refused to admit the falsehood. This is almost Trumpian.” (Here are two fact check reviews if you are interested; see PolitiFact, FactCheck.)

Neither story deals with Social Security. Both are garden-variety wedge politics playing out on a level not far removed from that of a 3rd grade playground. Each case is a matter of he said (somewhat doctored), she said. 

What Biden said in 1983 is irrelevant today. What he said 10 years ago is not meaningful. It is nearly $10 trillion of crisis ago. 

The impact of this type of progression has an unfortunate and serious consequence for the program. The lesson for politicians of any level is to evade the subject like the political plague. This response has less to do with the price paid at the ballot box from older voters today, and a lot more to do with fear that any combination of words will morph into attack ads that last over 40 years. 

While there isn’t any news here, neither Trump nor Biden deserves a pass on Social Security either. Both want to run the country. 

In the case of Trump’s comments, the media should be asking questions rather than inserting answers. Mr. President, could you tell us specifically what the contraction “that’s” refers to? What are the numerator and denominator that make up your “big percentage”? At that point we can start to ask about “easiest.”

It is entirely fair for Sanders to point out that Biden has no plan for Social Security. His plan stops at empty rhetoric and vague promises. He promises to raise money and he promises to spend money. What an astonishing commitment to arguably the most important program in the federal government. (I have to explain sarcasm in this case, just in case I ever run for elected office and Sander’s aides are reading this piece.)

Sanders should further point out that the GOP broadly does not have a plan. Suggesting that the GOP wants to gut Social Security or privatize the system is absurd. The real problem is that politicians on the right want to do nothing, and the current debate structure incentivizes it, and subsidizes it.

Social Security hasn’t been thrust into the news. It is nothing more than a label to attract readers.

About the Author

Brenton Smith (A.K.A. Joe The Economist) writes nationally on the issue of Social Security reform with work appearing in Forbes, FedSmith.com, MarketWatch, TheHill.com, and regional media like The Denver Post.