You'd think Social Security would top the list of subjects for a presidential debate in Florida. How many questions did Wolf Blitzer ask about it during Thursday night's Republican debate in Jacksonville?
Answer: None. The words "Social Security" never passed his lips.
It was almost as if there were a "gentlemen's agreement" among the five people on the stage. And we use that phrase advisedly, since Blitzer sealed the boy's club atmosphere by asking each of the candidates why his wife would make the best first lady.
The candidates did mention Social Security a couple of times, but only in passing and only in the most misleading ways possible. It's too bad there wasn't, oh, a journalist nearby -- one who was inclined to ask follow-up questions.
What was said that night? Rick Santorum and Ron Paul both attacked Newt Gingrich from the right on Social Security. Santorum suggested that the Speaker's proposals, which would cut benefits, were too expensive and would "create a brand new Social Security entitlement."
Ron Paul said that Gingrich's claim to have helped cut the federal deficit was false -- which is true. But then he said that the reason it's untrue is because Gingrich "doesn't count the money he takes out of Social Security" -- which is false!
Confused yet? Stick around. The layers of artificial reality became as mind-bending as a Philip K. Dick novel when Gingrich responded.
Gingrich attacked Obama from the left on Social Security:
I propose that we take Social Security off budget so no president can ever again get threaten, as Obama did in August, that he would not send the check out, and you could set Social Security back up as a free-standing trust fund. It does have enough money and you could in fact pay the checks without regard to politics in Washington.
Those two sentences include five statements. Let's take a look:
- "I propose that we take Social Security off-budget ..." It's already is off-budget, if by "off-budget" Gingrich meant that it's forbidden to contribute to the national deficit. It's required by law to be an entirely self-funded program.
- "No president can ever threaten ... that he would not send the check out ..." Obama suggested that checks might not be delivered if the budget impasse closed the government, which would always remain a possibility unless Social Security were removed from the government and privatized - which is Gingrich's real (and extremely unpopular) proposal.
- "It does have enough money ..." True, and it's projected to have enough until some time in the mid- to late 2030's, at which point it would pay 75 percent of benefits if nothing else was changed. Most GOP proposals to fix this "crisis" would cut benefits even more.
- "... you could in fact pay the checks without regard to politics in Washington." That's why the program was designed to be self-funded -- so that, in Franklin D. Roosevelt's words, "no damn politician" could ever cut its benefits.
President Obama could have prevented these kinds of disingenuous attacks a lot more effectively if he had not done things like appoint two avowedly anti-Social Security figures to lead his "Deficit Commission," repeatedly offered to cut Social Security, and then used the payroll tax that funds Social Security for a "middle-class tax break" that also benefits millionaires.
He even repeated the offer to cut Social Security and Medicare in last week's "Occupy-themed" State of the Union message! Oy. Still, any one of the candidates onstage last Thursday would do even more to cut the program needlessly -- far more.
So why wasn't it a topic that Blitzer and CNN considered important enough to discuss? When Santorum first mentioned Social Security, Blitzer said, "We're going to get to that in a moment." Iit sounded like the "it" in question was Social Security, but Blitzer never mentioned it again.
I can certainly understand why the candidates didn't want the subject raised. More than three and a half million Republican voters rely on Social Security, including seniors, disabled people, and surviving spouses. In fact, the candidates in Tuesday's primary would be crazy not to hide their opinions on the topic:
Mitt Romney's been pushing to privatize Social Security for years. After the financial crisis of 2008, Americans understand how risky it would be to place their financial security in the hands of greedy, reckless, and irresponsible financiers -- or as Mitt probably thinks of them, "the fellas."
Ron Paul says Social Security is "unconstitutional."
All of the candidates would raise the retirement age -- except Paul, who presumably would end Social Security altogether.
With positions like these, who wouldn't want to keep the Sunshine State in the dark? An AARP survey showed that likely Republican voters in Florida oppose Social Security cuts by more than two to one. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, a slight majority would favor raising the retirement age, but more Republicans favor the solution that's typically called "progressive" -- lifting or raising the cap on payroll taxes so that higher income levels are subject to the tax. All four Republican candidates strongly oppose this idea, which is their voters' preferred option.
"We're afraid that (Social Security's) going to be cut," said one voter, "or that we're going to lose what we put into it." Those are precisely the kinds of options the candidates in Tuesday's primary are offering. No wonder they're zipping their lips on the subject.
Some voters noticed the omission. As USA Today reported on the morning before the debate, "people are frustrated that the Republican presidential candidates have largely avoided the issues of Medicare and Social Security." You'd think that would have made the subject even more important for CNN to raise. A news organization's job is to ask candidates the questions they don't want asked. Surely they could have squeezed one in, perhaps after asking the First Lady question? (Gingrich graciously said they'd all be wonderful at the job.)
Remember the movie Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead? This week's Florida primary should be renamed Don't Tell Grandma Social Security Will Be Dead -- and Medicare Too -- If We're Elected. Mitt Romney's already on record as saying income inequality shouldn't be discussed openly. Was there some sort of "gentleman's agreement" to ignore Social Security too?
UPDATE: Ron Paul supporters note that I've left out other statements he's made about Social Security, especially that he would allow people under 25 to "opt out." Paul's website fails to provide a position statement on Social Security. It does mention - in passing - that he "believes younger American citizens should be permitted to opt-out of Medicare and Social Security." That statement's a little hard to find, since it appears on a page entitled "Ron Paul is the Only Candidate Who Will Cut Spending."
So we know that Ron Paul a) believes Social Security is unconstitutional, b) supports an unpopular 'opt-out' plan that would be an economic disaster, and c) wants to cut spending on it. That is, however, something of an incoherent position: How can you offer citizens the option of continuing to participate in an unconstitutional program?
Paul, like the other candidates, has a very unpopular set of proposals regarding Social Security. In fairness to him, however, I didn't describe it fully. (In my defense, I did so because it's self-contradictory and confusing.) Unlike the others, however, it's very possible that Paul wouldn't be coy about telling voters what he thinks. Unfortunately nobody asked him.