What Vice President Joe Biden said today was, to use his now-famous phrase, "a big effin' deal." No, we're not talking about his "chains" comment which, as usual, has fascinated a press corps obsessed with taking statements out of context and playing "gotcha" games. We're referring to the comments he made about Social Security in a Virginia coffee shop.
From a press corps pool report, as relayed by NBC News:
"Hey, by the way, let's talk about Social Security," Biden said after a diner at The Coffee Break Cafe in Stuart, Va., expressed his relief that the Obama campaign wasn't talking about changing the popular entitlement program. "Number one, I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security," Biden said, per a pool report.
As if that weren't enough, Biden said it one more time:
"I flat guarantee you."
What does it mean when those words come from the Vice President of an Administration that's been talking for years about a deal to cut Social Security? A lot.
Could the Vice President have been "off the reservation," as the saying goes, speaking unscripted words that don't have the White House's full backing? Possibly, but it seems unlikely. These words sound like they were pretty well thought out: "Hey, by the way, let's talk about Social Security."
And the Vice President said "I guarantee you" -- not once, not twice, but three times.
It's true that the President has spoken about making cuts to Social Security as part of a larger deal, even saying things like this (unwisely, in our opinion): " Okay, we'll make some modest adjustments that are phased in over a very long period of time. Most folks don't notice 'em."
We criticized him for those words then, and if he repeats them we'll criticize him again. But this is a sign that the White House's thinking may have shifted now that Paul Ryan's in the race. Not only has the Republican Party shown that its most intransigent wing is now in the ascendancy, making a post-election deal unlikely, but the Ryan nomination makes it easier to draw a clear distinction between the parties on Social Security and Medicare.
Ryan may be laying low on Social Security right now, but he's on record as supporting the unpopular plan to privatize it. Legislation he co-sponsored in 2005 would have allowed workers to divert up to 40 percent of their contributions into private accounts -- accounts that would have enriched Wall Street bankers and then would have been devastated by the financial crisis those bankers created in 2008.
Ryan's Social Security plan would have drained nearly five trillion dollars from the Social Security Trust Fund which Americans rely upon for future benefits, according to Social Security's Chief Actuary. It would have cut guaranteed benefits by nearly 40 percent when it was fully implemented. Ryan's bill would have funneled billions to Wall Street bankers - and this supposedly "fiscally serious" politician's plan would have forced the government to borrow $1.2 trillion which it wouldn't have been able to repay until 2083.
That makes this the perfect time for the Administration to describe a stark difference between its ticket and the GOP's: They'll cut your Social Security and we won't. They'll privatize it to make bankers rich off the public dime -- think of it as another bailout -- and we won't. They'll drive the nation deeper into hock to benefit their rich friends, and we won't.
And the White House can even add, as Vice President Biden did: We flat out guarantee it.
Why have the Vice President say it first? Remember, Vice President Biden also spoke out in support of gay marriage shortly before the President did. Part of the Number Two guy's job is to take some arrows for the boss. That gives the President's team the chance to see what works and doesn't work in the messaging before he speaks up.
To which we say: Great. If we're going to criticize the top guys when we disagree with them, we should have their back when they do something we support. Mr. Vice President, we've got your back on this one. Mr. President, we'll have yours too.
And they'll need it. There's a highly-funded, highly misinformed, highly misleading manufactured "consensus" in Washington around the idea that cuts in Social Security benefits need to be cut. They trade in a small but widely disseminated body of lies, and they're going to fight this with everything they've got.
The coffee was barely cold in that Virginia coffee shop when The Washington Post, which is Ground Zero for this dishonest cabal, went on the attack against the Vice President. The Post Editorial Board, which would have repeatedly been sued for journalistic malpractice if such a thing existed, even mendaciously repeated the often-disproven lie that Social Security is "going broke" when it attacked Mr. Biden.
Shame on them for lying.
"Is 'going broke' too strong?" the Post Editorial Board asks rhetorically. "Well, let's ask the experts -- the trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund... " The editorial then takes a lot of language out of context before stating the trustees' conclusion that Social Security's trust fund (which doesn't include the billions in revenue the plan collects each year) will "become exhausted and unable to pay scheduled benefits in full on a timely basis in 2033."
Let's ask that question again: Is "going broke" too strong?
"Broke": According to Merriam-Webster, it means "penniless."
"Broke": According to Cambridge Dictionaries it means "without money."
"Broke": According to MacMillan Dictionary it means "to have no money." And "go broke," according to MacMillan, means "to no longer have any money and be unable to pay what you owe."
The fund will continue to pay full benefits, with money in the bank, until 2033. It will pay most of those benefits -- 75 percent -- after that, because it will be collecting hundreds of billions of dollars each year in new revenue. Yet the Post says that it will be "penniless," will "have no money," will be "without money," or will be "unable to pay what it owes."
Washington's lousy with insiders who are willing to peddle dreck like this. It would make sense for the White House's calculus to include letting Joe Biden take the heat for a while before the President makes his case.
Of course, as we've already said, Biden could simply be off-message. If so, the President's campaign is likely to incur real damage if his team tries to walk it back. But it seems more likely that this a prelude to comments from the President in which he'll explain how he has "evolved" on this issue.
That seems much more likely -- and much smarter. A firm stance in defense of Social Security -- and then Medicare -- could be spun off into a number of winning themes for the White House, such as:
A youth issue: All the DC insiders' plans to cut Social Security are designed to hurt young people the most. Defending Social Security for younger people is a great way to energize the demoralized and disillusioned young people who are graduated with record student debt into the worst job market in modern memory.
An issue for seniors: That should need no explanation.
A 99 percent/tax fairness issue: The best way to stabilize Social Security's finances is by lifting the payroll tax cap and a financial transactions tax, and therefore asking the wealthiest among us to help undo the harm they've caused through exploding wealth inequity and Wall Street gambling.
Of course, the White House could say all the right things about Social Security -- and then make that December deal and cut it anyway. But when candidates "flat out guarantees" something, that gives citizens a lot of leverage to pressure them with after the election.
Citizen action was able to stop the President from offering Social Security cuts in his 2010 State of the Union message. It can work again, especially if the White House makes a clear stance like this a central part of its campaign. Could there be a fight in December? Sure -- but this makes it much more likely that we could win that fight.
And enough talk about fighting. Let's have a swords-into-plowshares moment. Right now I'm givin' it up for Joe Biden and the Administration. Biden said the right thing, and he said it straight up, without weaseling or waffling. Keep on saying it, Mr. Vice President, and get the President and the rest of the team to join you. Everybody will win that way.
Say it is so, Joe, and we'll be right behind you.