fresh voices from the front lines of change







Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s appearance on Meet the Press this Sunday was a rare positive moment in a very bad couple of months for Social Security advocates. Reid, who is not known for his gifted oratory, gave the most cogent rebuttal of calls to cut Social Security of any elected official in recent memory. With Democrats out of power in the House, and Obama poised to make Social Security cuts part of a “bipartisan deficit reduction package” ahead of the debt-ceiling debate, Harry Reid may be the only man standing in the way of disaster for America’s favorite government program. Take a look at the full transcript of his remarks below, or click here for a clip of the exchange.

DAVID GREGORY: Social Security– how does it have to change? What they put on the agenda is raising the retirement age, maybe means testing benefits. Is it time for Social Security to fundamentally change if you’re gonna deal with the debt problem?
HARRY REID: One of the things that always troubles me is when we start talking about the debt, the first thing people do is run to Social Security. Social Security is a program that works. And it’s going to be– it’s fully funded for the next forty years. Stop picking on Social Security. There’re a lotta places–
DAVID GREGORY: Senator are you really saying —
HARRY REID: –where you can go to save money.
DAVID GREGORY:– the arithmetic on Social Security works?
HARRY REID: I’m saying the arithmetic in Social Security works. I have no doubt it does.
DAVID GREGORY: It’s not in crisis?
HARRY REID: No, it’s not in crisis. This is– this is– this is something that’s perpetuated by people who don’t like government. Social Security is fine. Are there things we can do to improve Social Security? Of course.
DAVID GREGORY: Means testing. Raising the retirement age–do you agree with either of those?
HARRY REID: –I’m not going to go to with any of those backdoor methods- you know, to whack Social Security recipients. I’m not going to do that. We have a lot of things we can do with– this debt. It’s a problem. But one of the places where I’m not going to be part of picking on is Social Security.

One thing you won’t get from the transcript is the condescending smirk on Gregory’s face when he asks Reid if “the arithmetic on Social Security works.” Could there be any better metaphor for the elitism of the Washington press corps? Reid sticks to his guns though and leaves Gregory looking like the naïve one. For those looking for tips on how to effectively argue against cuts, Reid’s remarks are an excellent template. Here is the breakdown of his talking points:

  • There is no Social Security crisis. Social Security works and it is fully funded for the next 40 years
  • Social Security did not contribute to the deficit, so it shouldn’t be cut in order to reduce the deficit. “Stop picking on Social Security!”
  • Those who claim Social Security is in crisis just don’t like government programs.
  • Raising the retirement age and means-testing are backdoor methods to whack Social Security recipients.

Unfortunately, Reid may be the only Democrat that gets it. Contrast Reid’s response to Washington’s revered conventional wisdom with those of scores of more “respectable,” establishment political figures—most of them Democrats. For weeks now, we have seen a non-stop drumbeat for Social Security cuts from prominent politicians, with little pushback from the mainstream media.

  • First it was the presidentially-appointed Deficit Commission Co-Chairs, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, and their proposed cuts of up to 41.5% of scheduled Social Security benefits. (Bowles and Simpson’s reluctant admission that cutting Social Security would do nothing to reduce the deficit made the massive cuts they were recommending all the more disingenuous.)
  • Then, Senator Dick Durbin, a long-time liberal and Reid’s deputy in the Senate, surprised his progressive supporters by publicly supporting the Co-Chairs’ proposal (there was no official vote)—and parroting many of their talking points about the need to make “tough choices.” Apparently he missed the rest of the cuts in the Social Security part of the Commission report, because he only even bothered to defend his support for the retirement age increases.
  • Careful not to be outdone by Durbin, no less than 14 Democratic senators wrote the President a letter commending the Commission’s report and insisting that Congress act on it right away, despite the fact that it never enjoyed enough support for the Commission to formally vote on it.
  • Members of a bipartisan deficit reduction group of 20 senators in the Senate, led by Senators Warner (D-VA) and Chambliss (R-GA), and which includes most of the letter’s signers, have said they are using the Commission recommendations as the basis of their report.
  • A 15th Democratic Senator, Mark Pryor from Arkansas, flaunted his deficit hawk bona fides by publicly announcing that Social Security needed to be “on the table” in the discussion of deficit reduction, and specifically suggested that increasing the retirement ages was a likely option.
  • Finally, there is the refusal of top White House aides to deny that they would agree to Social Security cuts. Bob Kuttner caught Austan Goolsbee refusing to comment on it as recently as Friday.

So there you have it. The only powerful Democrat on the record against cuts to Social Security is Harry Reid—and he may be the only man who can stop it. In some ways this comes as no surprise. As an uncharismatic social conservative, Reid has never been a progressive darling. But a New Yorker profile of him this autumn revealed that Reid is a New Deal Democrat through and through. Raised in a poor mining family, Reid has made fighting for economic security and adequacy the driving force of his political career. His commitment to the Democratic Party is rooted in a deeply Christian belief that core Democratic programs like Social Security and Medicare are just the right thing to do. In the New Yorker article, Reid, a devout Mormon, called Social Security “the most successful antipoverty program since the fishes and the loaves.”

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