The presidential debates should be an opportunity to focus on the most important issues of the day. Unfortunately, the producers of the second debate failed miserably at this goal, because of their selection of which questions to ask.
Prior to the debate, the producers agreed to consider the top thirty questions voted on by the public at Open Debates. The question with the third largest number of votes, posed by Ellen Pleasant from North Carolina in the video below, was "Do you support expanding, and not cutting, Social Security's modest benefits?"
That straightforward question was voted third, out of more than 12,000 questions on which to vote. Over 45,000 Americans voted for Ellen's question. With poll after poll showing that retirement insecurity is a top financial concern of most Americans and with the reality that Social Security is likely to be even more important in the future, the voting is no surprise.
But the moderators did not ask it - or any of the other questions in the top thirty. Instead, they posed only one question from Open Debates (focused on Hillary Clinton's emails) which had all of 14 votes. Most of the questions asked at the debate, and the subsequent discussion between the candidates, focused on scandals and personal attacks rather than issues. Like Social Security, which undecided voters rank as their second highest priority after healthcare.
Ellen's question could be asked at the third and final presidential debate on October 19. Unfortunately, the prospect looks dim, even though representatives of Open Debates met with the upcoming debate's moderator, Chris Wallace of FOX News.
Social Security is likely to be discussed during the segment of the debate dealing with the announced topic of "Debt and entitlements." But that will neither answer Ellen's question nor inform the American people. Calling Social Security an entitlement and asking about it in connection with the debt is biased. That biased framing is not what that the American people want answered; rather, it is what FOX News and its sponsors want asked.
The American people correctly understand that Social Security is an earned benefit. "Entitlement" sounds like a government handout that can be taken away at whim. Moreover, talking about Social Security, undifferentiated from Medicare and Medicaid, as an entitlement, is not clarifying but confusing. The three programs are designed for strikingly different purposes with different histories and different challenges. As for its supposed relationship to the federal debt, Social Security has no borrowing authority, is totally self-financing, and so doesn't add a penny to the total federal debt. Indeed, it has a $2.8 trillion accumulated surplus. Cutting Social Security would not reduce the debt, only make that surplus larger.
Asking about Social Security as an entitlement supposedly adding to the debt simply reinforces decades-old false claims made by those who are intent on undermining Social Security. Although the Democratic Party, with its embrace of expanding, not cutting Social Security, now implicitly rejects the false, unstated contention that cutting Social Security will somehow reduce the nation's debt, it is still the belief of much of the mainstream media. Implying that Social Security is part of the problem of the nation's debt, and so, must be cut, is biased, uninformed, and uninformative.
We don't have a Social Security crisis in this country. But we do have a retirement income crisis, to which expanding Social Security is a solution.
The next debate's topic of "Debt and entitlements" puts a large thumb on the scale in support of cutting Social Security. Moreover, it plays into the hands of the Republican Party and its standard bearer, Donald Trump, who at a recent Florida rally talked about the need to "save" Social Security - fearmongering rhetoric designed to make cuts more acceptable.
For too many elections, the question about Social Security has been about "saving" it or "fixing" it, which is biased. It plays to people's fears that Social Security will not be there in the future. In truth, Social Security has a modest projected shortfall, still decades away, but its promised benefits - and, indeed, expanded benefits - are fully affordable and will be paid, if that is what the American people want and their elected officials follow their will.
That "debt and entitlements" framing cuts off debate, and fails to effectively inform the public about the differences between the Parties on the crucial issue of Social Security and the values those differences highlight. In sharp contrast, Ellen's question - whether Social Security should be expanded or cut - would highlight those differences and the values that underlie them.
Social Security is a shining example of government at its best. Whether to build on that successful government program or reduce it and rely on the private sector is an important value difference between the Parties.
We don't have a Social Security crisis in this country. But we do have a retirement income crisis, to which expanding Social Security is a solution. Too many Americans fear that they will never be able to retire and maintain their standards of living. The candidates should be asked to address that concern.
It is particularly important that Clinton and Trump be asked about Social Security in the right way, because they have not been asked about it in the first two debates. Though it came up in the vice presidential debate, moderator Elaine Quijano framed the Social Security question in the biased way the announced topics for the final debate indicate will happen again.
Since Chris Wallace is unlikely to ask about Social Security fairly, drawing out whether the candidates support expanding or cutting Social Security benefits, it is left to the American people to connect the dots. Fortunately, both the Democratic and Republican Parties address Social Security in their 2016 Platforms. Based on the Democratic Party Platform and her campaign website, Clinton's answer is easy to discover.
In contrast, Trump has made comments about Social Security on the campaign trail which are highly suspect. Nevertheless, based on the Republican Party Platform, Trump's statement prior to running for President, and the view of those who are advising him, it is not hard to guess what he what he really believes and would do as President.
Hillary Clinton supports expanding Social Security and opposes all cuts including raising the retirement age. She would reject efforts to make the annual automatic cost of living adjustments stingier and less accurate. She opposes privatization. She proposes to pay for the expansions and restore Social Security to long range balance by requiring those with incomes over $250,000 to pay more. As a related matter, Clinton has a plan to rein in prescription drug prices, which are currently taking a big bite out of the Social Security checks of millions of Americans and causing their costs of living to rise rapidly.
Donald Trump has said that he is opposed to Social Security cuts, but the overwhelming evidence is that he is only saying that because he understands the politics of Social Security. He knows how deeply unpopular cutting Social Security is. In 2011, he cautioned Republicans not to cut Social Security without bipartisan cover, or, he warned, "They are going to lose elections."
But there is strong evidence that cutting and privatizing Social Security are his true positions. First, the Republican Platform, which he controlled, contains a thinly veiled call for cutting and privatizing Social Security. Moreover, before running for President, Trump expressed his hostility toward Social Security by slandering it with a favorite slur of its enemies: He called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme." He also said that "privatization would be good for all of us," and called for raising the retirement age to 70 because "how many times will you really want to take that trailer to the Grand Canyon?"
Moreover, he has chosen a running mate who believes that George W. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security did not go far enough. And his closest advisers are on record favoring cutting and privatizing Social Security. Soon after Trump secured the Republican nomination, one of those advisers, Sam Clovis, spoke to a room filled with GOP establishment figures and Wall Street donors. He reassured them that a Trump administration would be open to Social Security cuts. Trump admitted in a debate during the primaries that he opposes expanding Social Security, which is the best solution to the nation's looming retirement income crisis.
Only Ellen's question - do you support expanding and not cutting Social Security - will inform the American people that Clinton supports expanding Social Security and Trump does not. Only that question is likely to elicit a discussion of the nation's looming retirement question and the candidates' plans to address it. That question would be a public service.
Elections are supposed to be referendums on issues. But it the voters are not presented in the presidential debates with candidates' contrasting positions, the electorate has a harder time making the comparison. The American people deserve to see a spirited discussion between the candidates about Social Security. They deserve to see that spirited discussion based on facts, not propaganda. Ellen's question would elicit a spirited question based on the facts.
Unfortunately, that is not what voters are likely to get in the final presidential debate this year. Instead, they will hear asked and answered a question based on the implicit, but demonstrably false premise of Social Security's unaffordability. That question will not inform, but it will appeal to the owners of FOX News, its sponsors, and other elites who think they will never need Social Security's modest but vital protections.