Why Hillary Clinton’s Five Words On Social Security Matter

Isaiah J. Poole

As Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is being celebrated by progressive Social Security advocates for posting a statement on Twitter late Friday that “I won’t cut Social Security,” let’s not forget why it was important to get Clinton to go on the record with those five words – and why it is important to continue to press Clinton to underscore them as her campaign for the presidency continues.

Her tweet was her most declarative statement to date on the issue of where she would stand on various proposals to “reform” Social Security and ensure its long-term solvency. It’s significant because in the minds of people concerned about what she would do as president when the future of Social Security is debated, she has some history to overcome – some of it very recent.

There is the not-so-small matter that her tweet points to a Social Security and Medicare page that was posted in September that, as far as we can determine, has not been revised since. That was the page that, when combined with her statement in an October CNN presidential debate, promoted me to ask in an October 15 post if her statement that “I fully support Social Security” was in fact “a Trojan horse” that contained some cuts in benefits for future retirees.

That post cited examples of proposals from conservatives that sounded similar to Clinton’s vow to “expand Social Security for those who need it most,” but would do so by taking benefits away from others. Those proposals would move away from the universal social insurance model that is foundational to Social Security and makes it politically different from means-tested “entitlement” programs.

By pointing her tweet to her original campaign language on Social Security and Medicare, she suggests that it should have been obvious all along that she has been categorically opposed to cutting Social Security – therefore, as her tweet concludes, “Enough false innuendos.”

But what she calls “false innuendos” reflect concerns based on her own past statements as well as those of her husband while he was president and she was first lady.

When she was running for president in 2008, she endorsed in at least three debates the idea of a bipartisan commission in which she would have few red lines.

In a September 2007 MSNBC debate, Clinton held up the 1983 bipartisan deal between President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill as a model for how Social Security’s long-term solvency problems needed to be addressed. That was the deal that gave us the increase in the retirement age from 65 to 66 now and 67 by 2027, as well as an increase in the payroll tax.

“I think we do need another bipartisan process,” she said at the time. “You described what happened in ’83. It took presidential leadership, and it took the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill to reach the kind of resolution that was discussed.”

She also put a heavy emphasis on “fiscal responsibility.” Specifically responding to a question of whether she would support lifting the cap that now exempts earned income above about $118,000 from Social Security payroll taxes, Clinton said, “Well, I 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.”

Her comments were very much in the spirit of a deal that President Bill Clinton almost pulled off with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. As recalled by author Steven Gillon in the book, “The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry That Defined a Generation,” both Clinton and Gingrich “were closer than anyone realized” to a deal that would have radically changed Social Security as we know it. “They both believed that any effort to update Social Security would require government to incorporate some measure of choice, and that meant some form of privately managed account,” he wrote. “… In the House, Clinton hoped to bypass the party’s liberal leadership and reassemble the coalition of suburban “New Democrats,” who tended to be socially liberal but fiscally conservative, and “Blue Dogs,” largely rural, southern conservative Democrats, who passed the balanced budget bill. …. Just weeks before the State of the Union address, the administration started signaling that it would support some form of privatization. ‘Given that we have to work with the Republicans, it’s hard to see a plan passing without some individual account piece,’ a Clinton adviser told Business Week.”

Hillary Clinton’s stance at the time, combined with her husband’s willingness to move toward Social Security privatization, earned plaudits from people like Steve LaTourette, a former Republican congressman who is now president and CEO of the centrist Main Street Partnership. In a 2015 interview with Eleanor Clift for the Daily Beast, LaTourette said, “The appeal she has to me—and I’m not a big Hillary fan—is she would make those choices her husband was about to make.”

Clinton’s more recent words in a September interview with the editorial board for the Des Moines Register also raised concerns. In that interview, she restated her opposition to “privatization” and said “I will not go along with raising the retirement age as the answer to everything that ails Social Security.” But she otherwise kept her options open. “I think it’s a mistake to go in and say here’s what I want to do, sort of in effect hand them your negotiating position. … I would go into these negotiations saying, ‘Here are the problems; what are we going to do to solve them,’ and not open the door to any Republican plan until we had a much better understanding of what I would accept and what I would not accept as president.”

Clinton’s desire to leave herself negotiating room “until we had a much better understanding of what I would accept and what I would not accept as president” was not only in sharp contrast to the bright lines drawn by Sanders – “… [O]ur job cannot be to cut Social Security. Our job must be to expand it” – but in ran counter to the demands of the coalition of organizations at the forefront of the fight to defend Social Security that recently launched a petition drive calling for Social Security expansion.

These groups are now willing to use Clinton’s clear statement – “I won’t cut Social Security” – as a position to which she can be held accountable. They will take that statement to mean that Clinton will not negotiate deals as president that will sacrifice anyone’s benefits as the price for solvency or for expanding benefits for a particular group of retirees.

What Clinton would be well advised to do now is to take those simple words and say them on the campaign trail – not as a swipe against “false innuendo,” but as an affirmative statement of where she stands against the continued bipartisan assault on its future and what the nation must do to make sure that Social Security is permanently strengthened.

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