With less than two weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, Social Security has emerged as a major point of contention in the Democratic presidential primary.
The fight: Sen. Bernie Sanders recently amped up his criticism of Joe Biden’s record on protecting the safety net program, criticizing the former vice president for what he described as a decades-long record of openness to bipartisan reforms that would cut Social Security benefits or raise the retirement age. The Sanders campaign pointed to Biden statements related to Social Security dating back to 1984 and to Biden’s support in 1995 for a balanced budget amendment.
Biden’s camp hit back — and brought more media attention to Sanders’s criticism in the process. Biden on Saturday demanded an apology from the Sanders campaign for circulating what he called a “doctored” video that suggested he agreed with Paul Ryan in 2018 regarding the need to cut Social Security benefits. The video wasn’t altered, but Biden’s camp claims his remarks were sarcastic and taken out of context. (Biden, in those 2018 comments, did go on to say that Social Security “still needs adjustments.”)
Biden’s camp insists that the former vice president is “a champion of Social Security” and points out that he’s now pushing for the program’s expansion. “He’s running on a plan to significantly grow its benefits, paid for with new taxes on the wealthiest Americans,” a campaign spokesperson told Reuters.
Sanders reportedly acknowledged that the one video in question didn’t provide the whole context of Biden’s remarks, but he continued to hammer away at his broader point. “I think anyone who looks at the vice president’s record understands that, time after time after time, Joe has talked about the need to cut Social Security,” Sanders told reporters Sunday at a campaign stop in Concord, New Hampshire. Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said Biden “should be honest with voters and stop trying to doctor his own public record of consistently and repeatedly trying to cut Social Security.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Sunday joined in on the attack on Biden. “Bernie Sanders and I established the ‘Expand Social Security Caucus’ in the Senate,” she told Politico. “As a senator, Joe Biden had a very different position on Social Security, and I think everyone's records on Social Security are important in this election.”
The context: Biden now calls for preserving and expanding Social Security, including scrapping the payroll tax cap and increasing benefits for older Americans. “There will be no compromise on cutting Medicare & Social Security, period. That’s a promise,” Biden said Monday at the 2020 Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum.
But, as the Sanders camp says, he has previously been willing to negotiate with Republicans over deals that would have slowed the growth of Social Security benefits or raised the retirement age.
“Biden during his time in the Senate publicly expressed an openness to either freezing year-over-year cost-of-living increases, as part of a bipartisan plan to slow federal spending, or raising the retirement age in order to preserve the program while managing the federal budget,” CNN’s Gregory Krieg reports.
The Obama administration also negotiated a debt-reduction “grand bargain” with Republicans that, had it not collapsed, would have slowed Social Security cost-of-living increases and raised the Medicare eligibility age in exchange for new taxes.
Sanders, meanwhile, has been a consistent advocate for expanding Social Security and opposed cuts proposed during the Obama administration. Last year, he reintroduced legislation to shore up the program’s finances and raise benefits by increasing payroll taxes on incomes above $250,000 and imposing a new tax on investment income.
Why it matters: The latest battle, and Biden’s current position, highlights a shift in the Democratic Party. “In proposing a Social Security plan during the primary with none of the cuts or changes he once countenanced, Biden has moved more toward Sanders — a triumph for a progressive movement that fought for years to ensure Democratic politicians would only consider growing the program, instead of raising age eligibility requirements or freezing cost-of-living adjustments to make it pay out less,” Politico’s Marc Caputo and Holly Otterbein wrote recently. The political question now is just how vulnerable Biden might be with the Democratic electorate, or facing off against Trump, given his past positions.
So is the idea of a grand bargain dead? “[T]he Sanders campaign is doctoring fiscal reality, which is that Social Security can’t continue in its present form. As early as this year Social Security benefits will exceed the amount collected in payroll taxes. This means benefits will have to be paid out of trust-fund asset reserves set to run out in 2035,” The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board argued. “It’s possible the Social Security attack will hurt Mr. Biden in Iowa, which has an older population than most states. But the larger damage will be to the cause of fiscal compromise if a Democrat wins the White House. Mr. Trump has little interest in reforming entitlements, and House Democrats would block him anyway. The best chance at a bipartisan reform would be a Democrat like Mr. Biden or Michael Bloomberg working with a GOP Congress.”
Given Biden’s latest pledge to protect Social Security, any bipartisan “grand bargain” might have to take a very different form than the last one.