01/05/2016 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jan 05, 2016

Bernie Sanders' Social Security Plan Gets A Huge Boost

A New York Times editorial signals that a progressive cause is going mainstream.

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The New York Times endorsed expansion of Social Security benefits, something Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has made a central part of his presidential run.

Progressives are hailing a New York Times editorial endorsing the expansion of Social Security benefits as an influential blessing to a position that, until recently, was relegated largely to liberal think tanks and activists.

The editorial published over the weekend encouraged presidential candidates to address Social Security as part of a strategy to confront a growing retirement income crisis, rather than merely as a problem to be fixed.

Closing Social Security’s funding gap “can’t be done by broadly cutting benefits,” the paper’s editorial board said. “In fact, there’s mounting evidence that Social Security, which has become ever more important in retirement, needs to be expanded.”

In fact, there’s mounting evidence that Social Security, which has become ever more important in retirement, needs to be expanded. The New York Times editorial board

The editorial from the paper of record marks a coup for progressive advocacy groups, economists and lawmakers, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who have steadily advanced the once-marginal pro-expansion stance into the mainstream.

“Hurray for the Times! I just wish The Washington Post were as enlightened,” said Nancy Altman, founding co-director of Social Security Works, a nonprofit that convenes a coalition of groups fighting for benefits expansion.

Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and a critic of how the press sometimes covers the Social Security debate, underscored the Times’ role as an arbiter of mainstream liberal thought. The longtime proponent of expanding Social Security called the publication's editorial  “hugely important.”

“They’re very much at the center of respectable opinion," he said. "If you’re taking a position that they have taken, you’re not considered a nut.”

[The Times is] very much at the center of respectable opinion. If you’re taking a position that they have taken, you’re not considered a nut. Dean Baker, the Center for Economic and Policy Research

And “nuts” is what many respectable Washington opinion leaders would have called the position even a few years ago. The Washington Post referred to groups opposed to benefit cuts -- ones that didn't even go so far as to suggest expanding Social Security -- as “Social Security denialists” in an August 2010 editorial.

In the deficit-wary, early days of the economic recovery, when the tea party was ascendant and President Barack Obama convened the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission, the question among both Democrats and Republicans was largely not whether Social Security benefits should be cut, but by how much.

The Bowles-Simpson commission recommended dramatic changes to the popular social insurance program in December 2010, including increasing the retirement age to 69, means-testing benefits and cutting the program’s cost-of-living adjustment by adopting a “chained” Consumer Price Index.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a leading Senate liberal and close ally of the president, sat on the commission, voted for its controversial recommendations and defended his vote in print.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
When Erskine Bowles (L) and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wy.) co-chaired President Barack Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission, cutting Social Security was all the rage.

Although the commission's proposals never were considered seriously by Congress wholesale, Obama offered Republican leaders the chained CPI as a compromise during fiscal cliff negotiations in December 2012.

The president subsequently included it in his fiscal year 2014 budget -- proof to many progressives that he actually believed in reducing benefits as a matter of policy.

At that time, Sanders spoke to progressives protesting outside the White House who had delivered over 2.5 million signatures against the move. The Times, for its part, also condemned the chained CPI, while implying it remained open to some other benefit cuts.

Along with the pressure from Obama’s base, the requisite Republican support for revenue increases to complete a “grand bargain” on the budget was once again not forthcoming. The administration shelved the provision the following year, which CNN called “music to liberals’ ears.”

Meanwhile, a counter-offensive was brewing. Social Security Works and its allied organizations began publicly promoting an idea they long had privately supported: that Social Security should be increased in order to combat a growing retirement income gap.

They were fond of citing many of the same figures the Times put forward in its weekend editorial.

“Currently, 36 percent of retirees rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income; over all, 65 percent of retirees rely on it for more than half of their income,” the Times noted. “The average monthly benefit hovers around $1,300.”

And things are getting worse, as the Times observed and these advocates often point out. Most Americans have saved very little for retirement and access to employer-sponsored retirement plans is declining.

About a month before Obama included the chained CPI in his budget for fiscal year 2014, progressives found their first champion of expansion in Congress: Former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced a bill that would have expanded benefits across the board and paid for it by lifting the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes.

But the movement to expand benefits really gained traction when Warren gave it her rockstar imprimatur in a passionate speech on the Senate floor in November 2013. Warren’s speech was a “real gamechanger” because of her national following, said Altman, who is also a co-author of Social Security Works: Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All.

Support for the position only picked up from there. All but two Senate Democrats present voted for a nonbinding budget amendment Warren introduced in April advocating the “sustainable expansion” of Social Security benefits.

Among the Democratic candidates, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) have both embraced across-the-board expansion of the program. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she would “enhance” benefits for the neediest beneficiaries, but has stopped short of the expansion language adopted by her rivals.

For Altman, the Times editorial is at once a sign that Social Security expansion is an idea whose time has come, and a "big step" that will further propel the policy into the mainstream. 

“It is a recognition of what has been building all around,” she said.

But Altman said she will only be satisfied when Republicans begin backing expansion of benefits as well.

“The next step is for Republicans to jump on this bandwagon,” she concluded. “It has historically been a bipartisan program. That’s when it will really be front and center mainstream.”

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