WASHINGTON ― Many debate watchers expressed dismay that a full four questions at the presidential and vice presidential debates cited the analysis of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a budget-hawk think tank funded by private equity billionaire and debt fearmonger Pete Peterson.
“It was the one question that had so many political premises baked into it I thought I would choke,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told The Huffington Post, in reference to Chris Wallace’s question on Social Security and Medicare in the third debate. The Fox News host’s query cited the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s analysis of the candidates’ plans for the programs and relied on the group’s political framing.
There is no evidence that the CRFB or Peterson used their political clout to influence the debate questions.
Instead, the CRFB’s outsize presence at the debates can likely be chalked up to the ability of a billionaire to tilt the public conversation with enough spending on a single issue, shaping the way that the mainstream media thinks about it.
But skeptics can be forgiven for wondering whether the questions were the result of backroom lobbying. A review of the Commission on Presidential Debates’ board of directors reveals that at least five of the members have ties either to the CRFB or other Peterson-funded organizations with a similar agenda.
Typically, people who sit on the board of a nonprofit are expect to assist the organization with fundraising, meaning that the agenda of those members and the organization’s ability to raise money become intertwined.
The four Peterson-tied board members:
Mitch Daniels is co-chairman of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s board of directors. He was formerly the Republican governor of Indiana.
John Danforth is co-chair of the board of directors at the Concord Coalition, a budget hawk group that Peterson founded. He’s a former GOP senator from Missouri. (In addition to their shared work on the debate commission, Danforth and Daniels serve together as board members of the Cerner Corporation, a healthcare technology company.)
Former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) is a senior fellow and member of the board of directors of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank with Peterson Foundation funding that has been a leading proponent of the fiscal “grand bargain” to cut social insurance spending. Her work for the organization earned her $150,000 in 2014. She is also on the congressional fiscal leadership council of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a Peterson-backed initiative promoting center-right deficit reduction policies. (Fix the Debt is run by the exact same professional staff as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.)
Former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) is also a member of Fix the Debt’s leadership council.
In addition, debate commission board member Richard Parsons works for a firm whose CEO is tied to a Peterson project. Parsons, the former chairman of Citigroup and a former chairman and CEO of Time Warner, is now a senior adviser to Providence Equity Partners. The CEO of Providence Equity, Jonathan Nelson, is among a group of business leaders supporting the Campaign to Fix The Debt.
As recently as 2014, the Commission on Presidential Debates’ board of directors also included former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wy.) and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (D).
Simpson may be the country’s most famous proponent of scaling back Social Security and Medicare, with a long history of mocking seniors opposed to cuts as “greedy geezers.” The former Wyoming senator co-chaired a presidentially appointed bipartisan fiscal commission ― known as Simpson-Bowles ― that recommended major Social Security benefit cuts in 2010. He then continued promoting a “grand bargain” as a co-founder of Fix the Debt and co-chair of the closely linked Moment of Truth Project ― both Peterson-backed projects.
Panetta is a member of the board of directors of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget; so is Simpson.
“Complete Editorial Discretion”
Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, denied that the views of commission board members play any role in the questions asked by the debate moderators.
“The questions are entirely up to the moderators,” she said. “They have complete editorial discretion on the topics and the questions.”
There is no rule forbidding a board member from contacting a debate moderator. CBS News and Fox News, who sponsored the two debates where moderators asked the four questions employing CRFB research and framing, denied that their journalists had consulted with any outside actors.
Fox News referred HuffPost to Wallace’s introductory remarks in the third debate.
“For the record, I decided the topics and the questions in each topic,” Wallace said. “None of those questions has been shared with the commission or the two candidates.”
Maya MacGuineas, president of the CRFB, dismissed the notion that the think tank had tried to influence the questions.
“CRFB was referenced, I assume, because we put out the most comprehensive non-partisan analysis of the candidates’ plans and various elements of the candidates plans and the overall fiscal picture, and in this election we produced a great deal of original research,” she said.
Parsons, Daniels, Snowe and Harman all denied speaking to either of the debate moderators. The Commission’s Brown denied that Danforth had, either, after the communications director of the Concord Coalition relayed HuffPost’s inquiry.
Brown also told HuffPost that no Peterson-backed group sponsored this year’s debates. Instead, the sponsors were the Kovler Foundation, the National Governors Association, AARP and Anheuser Busch.
It was the one question that had so many political premises baked into it I thought I would choke. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
Taking the TV networks and debate commission at their word does not diminish the influence of Pete Peterson’s pro-austerity ideology on the debates, however. The coincidence speaks to the chummy nature of official Washington, where politicians, elite media personalities and billionaires with ideological agendas often attend the same cocktail parties and consume similar conventional wisdom.
In the early years of the Obama administration, even as Americans lost their jobs, savings and homes at rates not seen since the Great Depression, this cosseted Beltway class insisted that federal government debt was the greatest challenge facing the country. Peterson’s organizations led the charge, drumming up political pressure for a “grand bargain” that would balance cuts in social insurance benefits with tax hikes. In May 2012, HuffPost estimated that Peterson had spent nearly $460 million on promoting deficit alarmism.
Whether it was the money, the power of a groupthink that insists on blaming both parties equally for social ills, or the convenience of policies that require middle-class workers and seniors to make the biggest sacrifices, Peterson’s preferred narrative held a lot of sway in Washington until very recently.
In many cases, as the debates show, top media personalities are still singing from Peterson’s hymnal. Never mind that, as the New America Foundation’s Mark Schmitt observed, using the analysis of the CRFB for debate questions about fiscal policy makes as much sense as citing the Sierra Club in a question about climate change.
What Was Wrong With The Questions?
So, what were the Peterson-inspired debate questions and what was wrong with them?
In the vice presidential debate, CBS News’ Elaine Quijano first relied on the CRFB’s estimates for a question focused on the national debt.
“According to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, neither of your economic plans will reduce the growing $19 trillion gross national debt,” Quijano began. “In fact, your plans would add even more to it.”
“Both of you were governors who balanced state budgets. Are you concerned that adding more to the debt could be disastrous for the country?” she asked Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R).
Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked a remarkably similar question in the third presidential debate.
“Our national debt, as a share of the economy, our GDP, is now 77 percent. That’s the highest since just after World War II. But the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says, Secretary Clinton, under your plan, debt would rise to 86 percent of GDP over the next 10 years. Mr. Trump, under your plan, they say it would rise to 105 percent of GDP over the next 10 years,” Wallace asked. “The question is, why are both of you ignoring this problem?”
The questions are factual and rely on sound data from CRFB. But they take as a given CRFB’s contention that adding to the national debt is a cardinal sin at this moment in time. In fact, the United States’ lenders are offering the U.S. very low interest rates by historical standards, signaling that they still consider American debt the safest investment on the planet. And a broad array of economists actually believe that a wariness of accumulating debt in the aftermath of the Great Recession limited the kind of deficit spending that was exactly what the U.S. and European countries needed then.
Quijano and Wallace also asked analogous questions about Social Security using CRFB data.
“Senator Kaine, on the issue of Social Security, in 18 years, when the Social Security Trust Funds run out of money, you’ll be 76. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates your benefits could be cut by as much as $7,500 per year. What would your administration do to prevent this cut?” Quijano asked Kaine before pressing Pence on the same.
“The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has looked at both of your plans and they say neither of you has a serious plan that is going to solve the fact that Medicare’s going to run out of money in the 2020s, Social Security is going to run out of money in the 2030s, and at that time, recipients are going to take huge cuts in their benefits,” Wallace prefaced his query about the matter. “So, in effect, the final question I want to ask you in this regard is ― and let me start with you, Mr. Trump, would President Trump make a deal to save Medicare and Social Security that included both tax increases and benefit cuts, in effect, a grand bargain on entitlements?”
Here, too, the moderators adopted the CRFB’s alarmist framing about Social Security and Medicare, claiming the programs’ solvency issues pose a more urgent threat to the country than the retirement security and health care crises they were designed to address. The questions take as a given that tax increases and benefit cuts are unquestionably a good thing and that only political courage is lacking.
In fact, it is a controversial policy prescription that reflects a fiscally conservative ideology prevalent in Washington ― but unpopular in much of the country.
Indeed, Social Security will be unable to pay 100 percent of benefits in 2034 if Congress fails to act ― which Congress has never failed to do in advance of past deadlines for the program. It is a serious problem, but not a crisis as the debate questions suggest. Closing the program’s funding gap can be done without cutting benefits ― and progressives, including Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, argue that it should be. These advocates and politicians point to Social Security’s increasing role as a source of retirement income amid the failure of 401(k) plans to provide adequate security in old age.
In addition, a component of Medicare ― Medicare Part A, or Hospital Insurance ― will need to reduce costs or increase revenue by 2028. The most effective way to do that is likely by empowering Medicare to negotiate lower costs with health care providers. Medicare already has a much better record than private insurers of keeping health care costs in check.
The problem for Peterson, though, is that when it comes to Social Security and Medicare, it’s easier to buy the elite class than it is the people who rely on the programs.
And the politicians who must answer to these ordinary people have finally caught on. Even given the framing of the question, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton refused to accept the premise that cuts are necessary. Clinton clearly said she would not cut benefits, and Trump dodged the question, claiming tax cuts and repealing Obamacare would be enough to restore the programs’ finances.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, this article initially misstated Mitch Daniels’ party affiliation. He is a Republican.