Social Security Privatization: Then and Now

05/07/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016
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About this time 10 years ago, it was becoming clear that President George Bush's plan to forever change Social Security by turning the program over to Wall Street was on the ropes. Even though his Social Security privatization road tour still had two more months of scheduled stops, the more the president talked about his plan, the less people liked it.

Gallup reported disapproval of privatizing Social Security rose by 16 points from 48 to 64 percent between the President's State of the Union address and June. It was an incredibly risky and unpopular idea that rapidly flat-lined thanks to the overwhelming rejection by the public. Yet, here we are a decade later and conservatives campaigning for Congress and the White House are resuscitating the Bush strategy by offering up approaches to Social Security which are stark reminders that the GOP playbook really hasn't changed that much.

What Else Has Not Changed

Americans of all ages, political parties and income levels, continue to oppose cutting Social Security benefits through privatization or other means. They understand the retirement crisis is real. A recent Gallup poll reports more non-retirees believe Social Security will be a major source of income in their retirement now than at any point in the last 15 years. The National Academy of Social Insurance's survey, "Americans Make Hard Choices on Social Security" shows that Americans' support for Social Security is unparalleled and they are willing to pay more in taxes to stabilize the system's finances and improve benefits. Seven out of 10 participants prefer a package that would eliminate Social Security's long-term financing gap without cutting benefits.

Even though Americans clearly understand the value of Social Security and are willing to pay more to strengthen it, Republicans in Congress and GOP candidates for President continue to push for Social Security cuts and/or privatization plans. Governor Chris Christie may have hoped savaging the program would give him the attention and conservative credentials needed to revive his flagging poll numbers before announcing his Presidential campaign against a roster of other candidates who already offered their own plans to cut Social Security benefits. The GOP Presidential primary has become a race to see who can deny more benefits for seniors, people with disabilities, survivors and their families faster. While cutting benefits in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid isn't really new among conservatives, what has changed in the decade since the Democrats led the charge against Social Security privatization is how some Democrats are now talking about these vital programs using the conservatives' language.

Why Opposing Privatization Isn't Enough

During the last decade I've observed a growing willingness by some Democrats to buy into the conservative mythology that targeting average Americans for benefit cuts makes them more "honest" and "courageous" than other politicians. This Republican talking point is built on the false premise that supporting successful federal programs which keep millions of Americans economically and medically secure is "pandering to seniors" while supporting billionaire tax breaks and corporate giveaways costing the federal treasury billions of dollars is "fiscal responsibility."

Ten years ago Democrats were united in their opposition to Social Security privatization. That's still largely true today; however, given the lessons of the past decade, opposing privatization simply isn't enough to convince constituents that their benefits are fully protected. The broader questions voters should ask incumbents and candidates alike include: Do they support benefit cuts in any other form such as the Chained CPI, raising the retirement age, and means testing? Do they support the failed Bowles-Simpson plan which would have done all of these things? Do they support the reallocation of trust fund monies to avoid a 20 percent cut to Social Security disability benefits? The answers to these questions can reveal the truth about a candidate's vision for the future of Social Security and the generations of Americans who have earned their benefits. "I oppose privatization" was enough ten years ago but it doesn't tell us whether an incumbent has been a Social Security defender or benefit cuts collaborator in the many battles since then.

While it's safe for Democrats to declare their opposition to privatization, the bolder step they need to make in this politically charged benefit-cuts environment is to demand that any Social Security conversation must address benefit adequacy as well as long-term solvency. It's clear that the majority in Congress has little interest in protecting this program even though our nation faces a retirement crisis leaving the average working household with virtually no retirement savings. The truth is Congress should Boost Social Security benefits not cut them.

That's a position that demonstrates true political leadership. Not because it's unrealistic or opportunistic, as the billion dollar anti-Social Security lobby would like you to believe, but because it pushes back against a decade long quest to cut Social Security benefits as the next best thing to privatization. "Death by a thousand cuts" is a political goal the American people simply can not afford nor should they have to. We have Democratic and Independent leaders in Congress who understand this and they support legislation to improve Social Security benefits. The National Committee has endorsed numerous pieces of legislation that would enhance Social Security, boost benefits, lift the payroll tax cap and adopt the more accurate consumer price index for the elderly (CPI-E). Proposals like the Social Security 2100 Act not only improve benefits but also extend Social Security's long-term solvency.

I believe the old truism that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. When Democrats were unified in representing the American people's views on Social Security they were on the correct side of the issue from both a policy and political perspective. Defeating the privatization of Social Security saved millions of Americans from an even worse economic fate than they already suffered through during the great recession.

Current and future Democratic lawmakers now have an opportunity to do the right thing again by joining the growing Boost Social Security movement and supporting legislation which would improve benefits while also strengthening the program's long-term outlook.