GOP Candidates Not Far Apart on Social Security

For more on how we can save Social Security from conservative attacks, hear Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Campaign for America’s Future’s Roger Hickey, Strengthen Social Security’s Eric Kingson and more at the Take Back the American Dream conference, Oct. 3-5.

At least some of the Republican Presidential candidates have gotten the memo that repeatedly demonizing Social Security has its consequences. After standing by assertions in his book that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie,” Gov. Perry has drawn harsh criticism from both angry voters and his fellow candidates. In fact, some of those other candidates, Mitt Romney in particular, are using Perry’s remarks on Social Security to create ideological distance between them on this issue.

One narrative that has emerged in the media in recent weeks is how “sensible” and “cool-headed” Romney appears on Social Security compared with the impulsive and ultra-conservative Perry. This is unfortunate, as a quick glance shows the differences between the leading candidates on Social Security are much more rhetorical than substantive.

 
A new analysis by the Strengthen Social Security Campaign shows that there are very few differences on Social Security between three leading Republican candidates for President: Romney, Perry, and Bachmann. A side-by-side comparison of quotes from the candidates reveals their similarities on five major Social Security issues: whether Social Security is a Ponzi scheme or fraud, Social Security privatization, raising the retirement age, means testing, and increasing the payroll tax cap. Most of the quotes are compiled from recent statements and campaign events, but some are gathered from several years ago to document the candidates’ real feelings about Social Security, before the serious campaign posturing.
 
For example, all three candidates have voted for or supported raising the Social Security retirement age, and all three have suggested means testing the program in various ways. While Romney talks about adjusting the benefit formula to reduce benefits for the wealthy, Bachmann has openly advocated kicking middle class people off Social Security to reserve the program only for the “truly needy and the truly disabled.” The important point is that these are pages of the same book – and they would both be significant changes to Social Security.
 
Even seeming differences – such as Romney’s attempts to punish Perry for calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme – are not as drastic as they appear. Romney himself has denied the existence of the $2.7 billion Social Security Trust Fund, and has said that “the American people have been effectively defrauded out of their Social Security.” While Perry’s statements often have more animosity towards the program, on a purely policy level, Romney is not too far off.
 
One striking detail is that these three leading candidates have all expressed support for partially privatizing Social Security in different ways, an idea the American public soundly rejected in 2005. Perry advocates for a system whereby states or communities can ‘opt-out’ of Social Security, as a few Texas counties did in the 1980s. Romney supports diverting a portion of Social Security taxes into private accounts, while Bachmann has spoken more vaguely about Americans needing to “take ownership of their own Social Security.” In any of these incarnations, the three candidates are all eyeing fundamental, structural changes to the program.
 
For all the questions the candidates will ask each other about each other’s Social Security plans in the next debates, the real question is: Can you tell them apart at all?