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Town Hall Debate: Will Voters Ask the Medicare and Social Security Questions Reporters Haven't?

This Tuesday the presidential candidates will meet with voters face-to-face for a town-hall style debate. Let's hope the voters will ask the questions the media haven't.
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If you support strong and effective government, then the unfamiliar glow you felt after last Thursday's debate was the satisfaction of seeing your opinions forcefully defended by a national candidate. There hasn't been much of that going on lately. But a deceptive question was asked in the vice presidential debate, while other important ones still haven't been asked of any national candidate.

The president's been undercutting his own party's best message and keeps threatening to cut benefits for its signature programs. As for Mitt Romney and his running mate, there's little left to be said: They're both determined to undermine Medicare and Social Security. Even if they're retreating from their most radical ideas now, you know those ideas will be back once they're in office.

If what follows focuses more on the president than on his challenger, its because the Republicans are beyond redemption on this issue. But both candidates need to answer some direct questions on this topic.

This Tuesday the presidential candidates will meet with voters face-to-face for a town-hall style debate. Let's hope the voters will ask the questions the media haven't.

Joe in the Flow

What you saw that night was a candidate on the Democratic national ticket doing something we haven't seen in a while: representing "the Democratic wing of the Democratic party." It was a pleasure to watch a gifted politician in the 'zone,' that state of maximum achievement sometimes called the "flow state."

But there were shadows over Biden as he spoke his stirring words about these two programs. First there was the shadow of Martha Raddatz's deceptive and scaremongering characterization of these programs, when she posed her question by stating that Medicare and Social Security are "going broke." That statement's simply false, a untruth that's been spoon-fed to careless reporters by billionaire-funded think tanks with a mission to undermine these programs. (And they eat every morsel.)

Hopefully good journalists like Raddatz will eventually be scrupulous enough to review the evidence and stop saying things like that. But either way it's too late to correct the misconception she reinforced in last week's debate.

The President's Promise is Missing

The second shadow was Biden's own equivocation on substance: will a second Obama/Biden Administration program defend these programs from needless cuts or won't it? Biden didn't repeat the unequivocal defense of these Social Security benefits he offered last month. Biden told voters in the Coffee Break Cafe in Stuart, Virginia that he could "flat guarantee" there would be no changes to Social Security if he and the president were re-elected.

But when Raddatz posed her deceptive question last week, the once-resolute Biden tried distraction rather than clarity. He used the same technique employed by other Democrats on the Social Security hotseat: "We will not -- we will not privatize it." That wasn't the question.

Biden's shift can be explained by the third shadow: The president's apparent to throw away the enormous political advantage Democrats can still win for themselves if they stand firm in defense of benefits for seniors. Instead, when he was asked to differentiate himself from Romney on this issue he said this:

"You know, I suspect that on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked ..."

With those words Obama all but threw away one of his party's greatest assets: its once-reliable reputation as the defender of Medicare and Social Security. Democrats better hope he gets it back -- if not for his sake, than for the sake of candidates further down the ticket.

The Fourth Shadow

And overarching all of it is the greatest shadow of all: The president's apparent support for a 'bipartisan' benefit-cutting agenda driven by Wall Street firms and individual billionaires.

The president may still be determined to cut these programs as part of a "Grand Bargain." If so, voters deserve to know that. If they did, chances are they would force him to make a commitment to back down from that idea before they go to the polls. That's exactly what the country needs.

It's also what his party needs. Nobody should be pressuring the president more on this issue than his fellow Democrats. Recent polling shows that the party has regained the advantage on this issue that it lost in 2010 -- a decisive factor in its loss of Congress -- at least among seniors who trust Democrats more than Republicans by an 18-point margin. But the president himself has a seven point deficit on this topic.

President Obama's talk of benefit cuts has been wounding him in the polls for for well over a year, and his equivocation in the last debate didn't help him or his party.

Voters Must Do the Reporters' Job For Them

Biden's forceful -- and startingly direct -- defense of Social Security got almost no coverage last month. Not a single reporter considered it important enough to ask the president whether he agreed with his vice president about an issue that is personally critical to millions of Americans.

Tuesday's presidential debate will take place in a Town Hall format. That's a relief, since moderator Candy Crowley has a long history of repeating shallow and unfounded cliche criticisms of "latte-drinking" Democrats. The only questions she might be counted on to ask would be as misinformed and misleading as Raddatz's.

Let's hope these voters will do what the White House press corps hasn't troubled itself to do: ask the president and his challenger some direct questions about Social Security and Medicare. It's not as if the public isn't interested. It is. And it's not as if they don't want these programs' benefits protected: They do, by overwhelming margins.

This is an opportunity for voters to penetrate the media bubble and ask both candidates some real questions about Social Security and Medicare -- not about whether they're "going broke," but about whether they'll defend them.

Questions Voters Want Answered

Mr. President: Will you agree with your vice president that there will be absolutely no changes to Social Security benefits while you are in office?

Mr. Romney: You have retreated from your party's original plan to dismantle Medicare as we know it. But what do you say to studies which show that we would wind up paying much more for health care out of our own pockets under your plan, and that it would put too much of our money in private insurance company's hands?

Mr. President and Gov. Romney: Health care in our country costs much more than it does anywhere else. That, and not benefits, is what's driving Medicare's future cost problems. What are you planning to do about it?

Mr. Romney: Your former company, Bain Capital, bought several companies that then began cheating the Medicare system. Isn't Bain-style high-pressure financing one of the things that's driving our medical costs sky-high? What will you do to fix it?

Mr. President: What will you do to fix our real cost problem, the Bain-style greed factor in our health care system?

Mr. President: When you ran in 2008 you promised us that people under 65 years of age would be able to purchase Medicare (the so-called 'public option'), and that we wouldn't be forced to purchase for-profit insurance under your plan. What happened to that promise, and what will you do to fulfill it in your second term?

Mr. President and Gov. Romney: We've heard all this talk about Social Security "going broke," yet it will continue to collect hundreds of billions every year. Isn't it more accurate to say it will need additional funds sometime in the 2030's? What do you think of this scaremongering, and why aren't we being told the truth?

Mr. President and Gov. Romney: Polls show that most Americans -- including most Republicans and most Tea Party members -- are against cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Will you promise us -- with no ifs, ands, or buts -- that there will be no cuts? Will you raise the payroll tax cap instead and ensure that millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share?

If a Commitment Falls in a Coffee Shop and Nobody Hears It, Does It Make a Sound?

The president traded away the Democrats' best issue in the first debate when he said that he and Romney had "essentially the same position" about "tweaking" Social Security. For seniors who rely on these programs, those "tweaks" would feel more like body blows.

Biden says of the GOP, "These guys haven't been big on Medicare from the beginning. And they've always been about (doing for) Social Security as little as you can do."

He's right. Democrats created both programs. They've winning elections for 75 years on Social Security, and for fifty years on Medicare. It's time somebody asked the president as his party's leader whether Democrats will "dance with the ones that brung ya" by defending them now.

Tuesday's night's audience will consist of undecided voters, a majority of whom have consistently told pollsters they oppose cutting benefits for these programs. That makes them the perfect folks to ask the questions that our national news media apparently won't.

"Trust your instincts," Biden advises voters. But until the president and Mr. Romney are asked some direct questions, "trust" -- and a couple of quarters -- will buy you a cup of coffee at the Coffee Break Cafe in Stuart, Virginia.

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