Is Jeb's Social Security Flub the Worst Bush Gaffe Yet?

06/01/2015 11:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

George W. Bush: His policies brought untold harm, but at least his gaffes offered some occasional lighthearted moments. Now his brother Jeb may have outdone him in the faux pas department -- but there's nothing funny about it.

The former Florida governor has been running on a platform which includes cutting Social Security benefits, so he's been talking about raising the retirement age. But, as it happens, he doesn't even know what the retirement age is.

When he was asked about it, Jeb responded in the tortured syntax characteristic of his clan: "We need to look over the horizon and begin to phase in, over an extended period of time, going from 65 to 68 or 70."

Except that the retirement age isn't 65, and hasn't been for some time. The current retirement age is 66, and it will continue to rise. People born in 1959 won't be able to retire until they are 67 years old.

If you're going to cut a program which affects the lives of most Americans, the least you can do is get the facts right. Jeb didn't. That's worse than a candidate getting the price of bread or milk wrong, or a president's wonderment at the fact that grocery stores have scanners. (That particular gaffe was attributed to Jeb's father, although it may never have happened.)

The retirement age is a fundamental part of American working life. If you're running for president and don't know what it is, you're privileged and out of touch.

Jeb's comment wasn't just a random flub. It was spoken in pursuit of a destructive policy goal. The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) ran the numbers a few years back and found that raising the retirement age to 70 would mean a 10% reduction in benefits for workers who were aged 40-44 in 2007.

A study by David Rosnick and Dean Baker showed that raising the retirement age would lead to increased inequality, worsening a condition that is increasingly viewed as the most serious economic problem of our time.

Another CEPR study, by Hye Jin Rho, found that more than one in three workers aged 58 and older work in physically demanding jobs. Those figures increase significantly for Latinos (62.4 percent of Latino men in that age group have physically demanding jobs), African-Americans (where the figure is 53.2 percent), and lower-income workers.

Here's the detail Jeb seems to have missed: The Social Security retirement age was already increased, as part of a package of changes passed in 1983. That was a major sacrifice for working people, and it has become even greater with the passage of time. Why?

Since 1983, rising wealth inequality has left the middle class with stagnating wages and financial insecurity.

Since 1983, the ultra-rich have become even wealthier, with income that soars above the cap on the payroll tax which funds Social Security.

Since 1983, corporations have gutted the employee pension plans which used to provide some measure of financial security for millions of retired Americans.

And yet, through it all, the retirement age has kept on rising as scheduled - a fact which somehow escaped Jeb Bush's attention.

Jeb's brother George left behind a rich banquet of amusing misstatements of the "is our children learning?" variety. (My personal favorite was "It would be a mistake for the United States Senate to allow any kind of human cloning to come out of that chamber.")

But Jeb's remark is not some simple chuckle-inducing boo-boo. It reflects a callous insensitivity toward working Americans, a lofty patrician blindness toward the lives of the hoi polloi. What kind of person, given vast inherited wealth and power, sets about worsening the financial circumstances of most Americans - without even bothering to learn what those circumstances are?

Jeb's blunder should be a front-page story. But it hasn't become one, at least not yet. Perhaps the media likes its "gotcha!" moments a little folksier, or a little easier to explain. Maybe it wants them to look like the blooper reels at the end of a funny movie.

But getting by in working America isn't a movie, and it certainly isn't funny. And if Jeb Bush has his way, the lives of most Americans - lives he doesn't understand, and apparently doesn't care to understand - will become even less enjoyable in the decades to come.