Clinton, Obama and the Social Security Table

The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that, as the February 19 Wisconsin primary approaches, Sen. Hillary Clinton released a new ad, entitled "Deserved," criticizing Sen. Barack Obama for not agreeing to a Wisconsin debate.  Then the ad threw out an incendiary charge:

The ad also  . . . says [Obama] "might raise the retirement age and cut benefits for Social Security."  That charge refers to televised comments Obama made in May that "everything should be on the table" in trying to resolve projected long-range shortfalls in the huge entitlement program.

Obama's "everything on the table" remark and Clinton's use of it nine months later -- after both candidates have had further things to say about Social Security -- presents a useful window on the nature of the Democratic race and the two remaining candidates. 

But a little background is necessary to understand why.  Here is the new Obama ad which his campaign released over the weekend:

"After 18 debates with 2 more coming, Hillary says Barack Obama is ducking debates?  It's the same old politics.  Here's the truth.

"Obama has a plan to protect social security benefits & the current retirement age.  Hillary doesn't."

In their respective ads, neither Obama nor Clinton identified their "plans" to protect Social Security.  Both candidates have in fact addressed the issue of Social Security, although not quite in the manner one would think, given their most recent ads.

So let's rewind the tape, starting with Obama's remark in May.

Obama's "everything on the table" remark occurred in the course of an unintentionally amusing exchange with George Stephanopoulos:

Stephanopolous:  You've also said that with Social Security everything should be on the table.

Obama:  Yes.

Stephanopolous:  Raising the retirement age?

Obama:  Yes.

Stephanopolous:  Raising payroll taxes?

Obama:  Everything should be on the table.

Stephanopolous:  Partial privatization?

Obama:  Privatization is not something I would consider.

There are basically three choices with respect to Social Security, as the nation heads into the boomer retirement years with huge financial liabilities to future generations:  (1) reduce benefits, (2) raise taxes, or (3) reform the system (aka partial privatization). 

Partial privatization would represent fundamental change, allowing younger people to use some of their taxes to invest for their own retirement, in investment vehicles offering the prospect of greater returns and security.  Relatively small changes in benefits (such as extending retirement dates or changing the inflation adjustment index) might also contribute to the system's solvency.  Raising taxes is, of course, the perennial Democratic solution for any problem.

In his May conversation with Stephanopolous, Obama at least left two of the options -- reducing benefits or raising taxes -- on the table, while rejecting the third out of hand. 

This turned out to be two more options on the table than Hillary Clinton was prepared to leave.  At the September 26 Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, she had this exchange with Tim Russert (emphasis added in all quotes below):

RussertSenator Clinton, would you be in favor of saying to the American people, "I'm going to tax your income; I'm not going to cap at $97,500.  Everyone, even if you are a millionaire is going to pay Social Security tax on every cent they make."

Clinton:  Well, Tim . . . I want to make three points very briefly.

First, [blah, blah, fiscal responsibility, blah].

Number two, [blah, blah, bipartisan process, blah].

And, finally, [blah, blah, [consider] what else might be done, blah]. 

RussertBut you would not take lifting the cap at $97,500 off the table?

ClintonWell, I'd take everything off the table until we move toward fiscal responsibility and before we have a bipartisan process.  I don't think I should be negotiating about what I would do as president.  You know, I want to see what other people come to the table with.

Moments later, Russert returned to the issue with an even more straightforward question for Clinton:

RussertSo, Senator, a simple question, a simple question:  What do you put on the table?  What are you willing to look at to say, "We're not going to double the taxes, we're not going to cut benefits in half; I'm willing to put everything on the table, some things on the table, nothing on the table"?

ClintonI'm not putting anything on the proverbial table until we move toward fiscal responsibility.  I think it's a mistake to do that.

Having heard that answer, the Obama campaign apparently decided it had left too many options on the table, particularly as the Iowa caucuses started coming into focus. 

In late October, according to an item on the Obama campaign website, Obama pulled one of his two remaining options off the table -- at a Des Moines area senior center.  An Obama news release noted that during his visit there he "said he would strengthen Social Security by opposing any effort to create private accounts, raise the retirement age and cut benefits." 

Having now taken both partial privatization and reducing benefits off the table, there was only one option left:  raising taxes. 

But that was still one more option than Hillary would leave on the table.  During the October 30 Democratic presidential debate, Tim Russert returned to the issue again:

MR. RUSSERT:  . . . You were asked at the AARP debate whether or not you would consider taxing -- lifting the cap from 97,500, taxing that, raising more money for Social Security.  You said, quote, "It's a no."  I asked you the same question in New Hampshire.  You said no.  Then you went to Iowa and you went up to Tod Bowman, a teacher, and had a conversation with him, saying, I would consider a -- lifting the cap perhaps above 200,000.  You were overheard by an Associated Press reporter saying that.  Why do you have one public position and one private position?

SEN. CLINTON:  Well, Tim, I don't.  I have said consistently that my plan for Social Security is fiscal responsibility first, then to deal with any long-term challenges which, I agree, are ones that we're going to have to address.  We would have a bipartisan commission.  In the context of that, I think all of these would be considered. . . ..

So when somebody asks me, would something like this be considered? Well, anything can be considered when we get to a bipartisan commission, but personally, I am not going to be advocating any specific fix until I am seriously approaching fiscal responsibility.

At another point in the debate, Senator Clinton indicated that, while she might not be advocating any "specific fix," she did have a "specific plan:"

With respect to Social Security, I do have a plan.  It's called start with fiscal responsibility.  That's what we were doing in the 1990s, and we had Social Security on a much better path than it is today because of the irresponsible spending policies of George Bush and the Republican Congress.

If there are some of the long-term challenges that we need to address, let's do it in the context of having fiscal responsibility, and then let's put together a bipartisan commission and look at how we're going to deal with these long-term challenges.  But I am not going to balance Social Security on the backs of seniors and hardworking middle-class Americans.  Let's start taking the tax cuts away from the wealthy.  Let's take away the no-bid contracts from Halliburton before we start imposing a trillion-dollar tax increase on the elderly and on middle-class workers.  I don't think that's necessary.

So I have a very specific plan.

The Four-Part Clinton Plan:  Fiscal responsibility, bipartisan commission, deal with long-term challenges, Halliburton.  (That last part may have been a talking point for a different issue, since "Halliburton" would not do much for Social Security; even "taking tax cuts away" would have no effect, unless they were put in a "lockbox," as another candidate once suggested).  

Hillary's expert polling operation undoubtedly found that "fiscal responsibility," "bipartisan process" and "long-term challenges" worked well with focus groups -- particularly when combined with the absence of any specific proposal.

On February 16, 2008, in response to Obama's latest ad asserting he has a plan for Social Security (Obama's ad did not say the plan was a tax increase), Hillary posted a response on her site saying she did too have a plan:  she

"is strongly advocating a bipartisan process  . . . and when that gets set up, as I hope it will be when I'm president, then I'm going to see what the bipartisan members are going to come up with."

Hillary's "plan" is wrapped in rhetoric that is poll-driven, focus-group tested, triangulating-sounding, speciously specific, and completely content-free -- avoiding the necessity of coming out for increased taxes while signaling in private and with code words ("fiscal responsibility") that it is her option of choice, once she gets others to suggest it after her inauguration. 

Perhaps she was "specific enough," as Obama might say.

Obama too has a plan.  He got there by the simple process of elimination, as he learned that in Democratic politics there are some things one cannot even think about (partial privatization), and others that, on reflection, one should not consider during a campaign (benefit reductions). 

That left Obama with only one option -- the oldest idea in the Democratic book -- even though he started his "new politics" campaign last year with his position that "everything should be on the table." 

Such is the story of the latest Democratic iteration of hope and change.  McGovern abroad and Mondale at home. 

We can raise taxes, yes we can.

Rick Richman's articles have appeared in American Thinker, The New York Sun, The Jewish Press, and other periodicals.  He edits "Jewish Current Issues."
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