Last night on the debate stage, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for president, argued with each other about how much they would expand Social Security.
There is a significant difference between their proposals: Senator Sanders has a bill that would expand benefits for all current and future beneficiaries while also expanding them specifically for the most vulnerable among us, while Secretary Clinton does not expand benefits for the middle class, focusing her improvements on the most vulnerable. Significant as that is, the real difference is where the debate stands today compared to just a few short years ago.
In 2010, if you listened to the mainstream media, you would have learned that Social Security benefits had to be cut; the only questions were by how much and by what process - ideally one that would shield politicians from committing political suicide. The Democratic Obama administration convened the Bowles-Simpson Commission to work out a "Grand Bargain" behind closed doors. If the Commission had been successful, Congress would have been required to consider the plan on an up-or-down vote, with no ability to amend and no debate.
The goal for the Bowles-Simpson Commission and several subsequent, similar efforts, was to have Democrats and Republicans hold hands and vote for something deeply unpopular with the American people. If successful, the electorate would likely have been uncertain whom to blame.
That was a decidedly biased debate. It was based on the false premise that the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world at the wealthiest moment in its history, could not afford to continue to pay Social Security's modest benefits. This, despite the fact that the populations of less wealthy countries enjoy considerably higher counterpart benefits. It was obvious to experts that the question of whether to expand or cut Social Security is one of values and vision, and a choice of what kind of nation in which we want to live.
At the time President Obama issued his executive order setting up the Bowles-Simpson commission, my colleague, Eric Kingson, and I were just forming Social Security Works, and organizing a broad-based coalition designed to defend Social Security from cuts and ultimately to expand its modest benefits. We were at a decided disadvantage to Wall Street's Third Way, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and other billionaire-funded groups pushing cuts to our earned benefits.
But, we did have two aces up our sleeve. Big ones. The same two which supporters of Social Security have relied on throughout its eighty-year history. Whenever wealthy, unrepresentative interests - people President Dwight Eisenhower called a "tiny splinter group" - tried to trick Americans into turning against their own self-interest, we had the facts on our side, and we had the American people. Polling shows that irrespective of political affiliation, gender, race, ethnicity or age, the overwhelming majority of Americans, 94 percent, reject cutting Social Security benefits. And they are right to have that view. It is unquestionably the best policy.
The media booked guest after guest from a well-funded network of Wall Street funded front-groups to argue that it was sensible and brave to steal the American people's money by cutting their earned benefits, and politicians vied with one another to claim the Very Serious People label by talking about "everything being on the table." This was where we first implemented our strategy for fighting back: go directly to the American people, let them know that their elected officials were pushing to cut their earned benefits, and bring their voices, raised in vigorous opposition, to the halls of Congress.
The battle raged on for the better part of the Obama presidency. We won, but the victories had their cost: The false framing that Social Security was unaffordable had a corrosive effect on the confidence of the American people in their Social security system, and the opportunity cost of what we weren't able to focus on while we were defending Social Security.
With our champions in Congress, including Senator Sanders, we began fighting not just against cuts, but for expanding Social Security. Expanding Social Security is profoundly wise policy to address our nation's looming retirement income crisis, as well as other challenges facing the nation. It is also crushingly simple politics, since expansion is supported by huge majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans. After a few short years of bringing the American people's voices directly to the halls of power in DC, 90 percent of the Democrats in the Senate, 75 percent of the Democrats in the House, and 100 percent of the Democrats running for president support expanding benefits, never cutting them.
We are glad that Americans will have a choice this election year. For too long, they heard from all presidential candidates the vague promise to "save" Social Security. This time, the Democratic presidential candidates are on record for advocating expanding, not cutting, Social Security. All the Republican candidates but Donald Trump are on record for advocating cuts and/or radical transformation of Social Security. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Republican front runner is the sole member of the field who loudly states his opposition to cuts. But, there is still a clear distinction : the Democratic candidates correctly state that the only path forward on Social Security is expanding benefits, never cutting them, while the Republicans are still debating whether to cut Social Security benefits or not.
The shift in the debate is extremely important, not just because it is a more honest framing of the question before the American people on a program of vital importance to the basic economic security of American working families. It is important because it begins to restore a benefit that has been lost.
Social Security is intended to provide, in addition to cash benefits, the intangible benefit of security, peace of mind, that if we work hard and contribute, our Social Security system will be there for us in the event we become disabled, reach old age, or die leaving dependent children. When the message is the false one that Social Security is unaffordable, that peace of mind is gone. When the debate is an honest one, determined by values and choice, we all win.