Eighty-one years ago Sunday, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act and created the one of the most enduring and consequential programs from the New Deal.
This year, the program has a wonderful birthday present. Neither presidential candidate is running on Social Security privatization or benefit cuts.
In 2012, Mitt Romney explicitly ran as the Republican presidential nominee on a pledge to "slowly raise the retirement age" and "slow the growth of benefits for those that have higher incomes." In the previous year, President Obama had, in private budget negotiations with House Republicans, reportedly offered to change the cost-of-living formula to reduce benefits over time – what Romney alluded to. But those talks collapsed and Obama didn't run on the proposal.
In 2008, Republican candidate John McCain tied himself in knots, sometimes expressing support for partial Social Security privatization and sometimes denying it. Obama criticized his privatization views vociferously.
In 2004, George W. Bush ran on a promise to pursue partial privatization, even telling The New York Times that October that "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing in with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security." Upon winning, he fatefully claimed to have an mandate to enact it, only to be stifled by Senate Democrats and public opinion polls.
While Social Security has survived unscathed by all these threats, the threats have been persistent. This year, the threat has subsided.
Republican candidate Donald Trump has explicitly repudiated the long-standing Republican attack on Social Security, for example, telling a radio interviewer, "Paul [Ryan] wants to knock out Social Security, knock it down, way down ... No. 1 you're going to lose the election if you do that. ... But more importantly ... I want to keep SS intact ... I'm not going to cut it, and I'm not going to raise ages, and I'm not going to do all of the things that they want to do. But they want to really cut it, and they want to cut it very substantially, the Republicans, and I'm not going to do that."
And Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has adopted the push from the populist left to "Expand Social Security." Her website says: "Hillary will fight to expand Social Security for those who need it most and who are treated unfairly today ... [She will reduce] how much Social Security benefits drop when a spouse dies, so that the loss of a spouse doesn’t mean financial hardship or falling into poverty ... Americans should receive credit toward their Social Security benefits when they are out of the paid workforce because they are acting as caregivers."
Clinton's proposals may not amount to as robust an expansion as progressives would like – Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed an across-the-board increase in benefits during his presidential run – but the big rhetorical shift away from "insolvency" toward "expansion" takes the pressure for cuts off the program.
Despite the relative consensus of protecting Social Security, Trump – surprise, surprise – may not be on the level. In his 2000 book, he described Social Security by saying, "Does the name Ponzi all of a sudden come to mind?" and then proposed, "A firm limit at age seventy makes sense for people now under forty" and "Privatization would be good for all of us." Moreover, his vice-presidential pick Mike Pence supported Bush's privatization plans and said in response to raising the retirement age, "I'm an all-of-the-above guy."
Trump's flip-flop gives Clinton a big opening. Democrats have struggled to win the votes of seniors in recent elections. While Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the 65-plus vote, John Kerry lost it to Bush by five points. Obama was trounced among seniors, by eight points in 2008 and 12 in 2012.
Today, Hillary Clinton is in better shape. She leads with 65-plus voters by nine points in the last ABC/Washington Post poll, and with 60-plus voters by seven points in a recent McClatchy/Marist poll. But considering older voters are where Democrats have been weakest in the last three elections, any possible rebound by Trump would likely begin with the senior vote.
Clinton has a big card she's yet to play: touting her embrace of Social Security expansion while hammering Trump for flip-flopping and hiding his past support for privatization and raising the retirement age. It could be the final nail in the Trump coffin.