Biden and Sanders Trade More Shots Over Social Security
Social Security

Biden and Sanders Trade More Shots Over Social Security

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders continue to trade shots over Social Security.

On Tuesday night, Sanders tweeted out an ad featuring an audio clip from a 1995 Biden Senate speech in which the future vice president touts his efforts to balance the federal budget: “When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.”

The Sanders spot then cuts to the Vermont senator promising at a campaign rally to expand Social Security benefits.

“Let's be honest, Joe. One of us fought for decades to cut Social Security, and one of us didn't. But don't take it from me. Take it from you," Sanders said in his tweet.

Biden on Wednesday was asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” whether he would cut Social Security benefits if he becomes president.

“No, no, no, no,” he said. “And we weren’t talking about cutting them either then.”

He went on to accuse the Sanders camp of taking his past statements about Social Security out of context. "My support for Social Security has been solid my entire career," Biden said. "I did join with a lot of other Democrats to make sure we ‘fix Social Security,’ made it solvent during the Reagan years." 

In an ad released Tuesday night, Biden’s team had accused Sanders of unleashing false negative attacks — in particular, a Sanders campaign charge that alleged Biden had supported Paul Ryan’s proposed cuts to Social Security. "As Democrats, we can't launch dishonest attacks against fellow Democrats," the ad said. "Bernie's campaign is not telling the truth."

Biden’s ad points out that the former vice president fought attempts to privatize Social Security and proposes to expand the program and increase benefits if he wins the White House. “I've been fighting to protect — and expand — Social Security for my whole career,” Biden said in a tweet. “Any suggestion otherwise is just flat-out wrong.”

In response, Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said in a statement: “Joe Biden just released the first negative ad of the 2020 Democratic primary, and let’s be clear about why: he’s trying to distort his decades-long record of proposing and voting for cuts to Social Security benefits for millions of people. Joe Biden is no defender of Social Security, and a negative ad won’t help him outrun his record.” 

Why it matters: “The disagreement touches on one of the core questions of the Democratic primary: whether voters support a candidate like Sanders who wants a vast expansion of the social safety net, or a candidate like Biden who warns about moving too quickly to boost benefits and about ballooning budget deficits,” CNBC’s Jacob Pramuk writes.

It's worth noting, though, that on the issue of Social Security, Biden isn’t proudly defending his record or his past willingness to consider cuts as part of efforts to forge difficult compromises for the sake of what he in the past likely would have called fiscal responsibility.

“For the vast majority of his career, Biden has been a deficit hawk who’s willing to sacrifice Social Security and Medicare benefits for the sake of achieving smaller budget gaps.,” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias writes. “He’s even bragged about it to establish a rhetorical contrast with Republican fiscal irresponsibility. And unlike some Biden-related controversies, this isn’t ancient history. It’s a position Biden maintained as Barack Obama’s vice president — and that Sanders and Warren fought against.”

Biden may be running, in large part, on a (questionable) promise of being able to restore some sense of bipartisanship to a country that’s as polarized as it’s ever been in recent history. But he has responded to the attacks from Sanders by insisting he’d protect and expand Social Security — not by saying that he’d be the best person to tackle a looming Social Security crisis by hammering out another bipartisan grand bargain.

That’s an indication of how far the debates over Social Security and the federal budget deficit have shifted, even as the Social Security trust funds are projected to be depleted by 2035 and the deficit is rising above $1 trillion — and it’s a sign that Biden’s previous positions now represent a political vulnerability. As Slate’s Jordan Weissmann writes, “Biden’s past willingness to put popular entitlements on the table could be a serious political liability in a race against Donald Trump, who has repeatedly promised not to cut Social Security benefits for the elderly.”

On the other hand, Trump has expressed an openness to making entitlement cuts in his second term, which could change the poilitical calculus.