The Surprise Issue of the 2016 Election?

04/22/2015 03:48 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

The 2016 election season is just beginning, but a surprise issue is already emerging among both Republican and Democratic candidates: Social Security. Some observers thought that conservative candidates would be inclined to avoid the so-called "third rail" of American politics this time around, but the opposite seems to be true. A lot of Republicans are eager to propose cutting it, even as many progressives talk of expanding it.

Where does that leave the Democratic Party and its odds-on favorite for the presidential nomination? Will Hillary Clinton embrace her party's growing call to increase Social Security benefits?

It's not an extreme idea, as some would have us believe, or even a particularly "leftist" one. In fact, Social Security expansion was a key part of the Republican agenda -- in 1956. This new proposal turns out to have surprisingly old roots.

The Means Testing Bait-and-Switch

First, the Republican race: Social Security surfaced in the very first days of the campaign, thanks to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie, regurgitating the corporate-funded clichés of the self-described "center," went after the program with the zeal of a born huckster. He wants to raise the retirement age, a benefit cut which would impose a heavy burden on working Americans.

Christie also trotted out some old, discredited arguments for means-testing, adding that by opposing it "the left are defending the rich."

Nice try, Mr. Christie, but that bait-and-switch game has already been exposed. "Means testing" would deprive billionaires of a maximum monthly benefit of $2,663 in 2014. Think they care? Proposals from "the left," on the other hand, would either lift the payroll tax cap altogether or reimpose it on earnings about a certain amount. That would add up to a significant amount for ultra-high earners.

Now who's defending the rich, Governor?

Christie would start his means-tested cuts at earnings of $80,000 per year - but how long would that last? Conservative groups like the Concord Coalition have proposed doing it for average incomes as low as $20,000 per year.

Christie's "bold plan" would become a race to the bottom for the American middle class. It would also convert Social Security from an insurance plan to a welfare program based on need. (And we know how Republicans feel about welfare, don't we?)


Jeb Bush soon joined in the act, trying to see Christie's cuts and raise him - with other people's benefit money. Bush insisted that "we need to raise the retirement age, not for the people that already nearing --receiving Social Security that are already on it [sic], but raise it gradually over a long period of time for people that are just entering the system." (There's that Bush syntax again. Did you miss it?)

But if Bush thinks raising the retirement age is such a good idea, why not do it for people who are "already nearing" it? It's simple pandering. Both Bush and Christie know that older voters lean Republican, and they don't want to alienate them. Bush and Christie want to get elected - and both want to protect their rich patrons from the plan to lift the payroll tax cap.

Then came an unexpected ploy by Mike Huckabee, who is attempting to outflank his opponents from the left on this issue. "I'm getting slammed by some in the GOP ruling class for thinking it wrong to involuntarily take money from people's paychecks for 50 years," said Huckabee, "and then not keep the promise government made."

By opposing all Social Security cuts, Huckabee has staked out a position which is more progressive than that of President Obama through much of his Administration - or, for that matter, of Sen. Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign. That's a politically savvy move. Voters across the political spectrum oppose benefit cuts by wide margins.


Social Security would seem like a natural issue for the Democrats. Their party created this popular and successful program, after all, and Democrats led the fight to thwart George W. Bush's unpopular and potentially disastrous privatization plan.

But in recent years Democrats have had a knack for giving away the advantages Social Security brings to their party. That's what happened in 2010, after two years of equivocation and deficit-reduction obsession from President Obama squandered their good will on this issue.

Polling figures from that time tell the story: a 20-point advantage on Social Security in 2005 had been turned into a dis-advantage of several points by the time the 2010 election rolled around. That's the year the ever-cynical and ever-inventive Republicans invented something called the "Seniors' Bill Of Rights," ran to the rhetorical left of Democrats on Medicare and Social Security - and recaptured the House.

Changing places.

How is this year shaping up for Democrats? Secretary Clinton had this to say when asked this week about Social Security:

"I think there will be some big political arguments about Social Security. And my only question to everybody who thinks we can privatize Social Security or undermine it in some way - (is) what is going to happen to all these people ...? ... It's just wrong."

While that's a firmer defense of the program than she offered in 2008, it's not likely to satisfy voters on the left - or across the political spectrum. They're likely to remember that Barack Obama offered similar reassurances in 2008, only to reverse himself once elected.

Obama the campaigner talked of lifting the payroll tax cap to protect the program, while then-Senator Clinton said "I don't want to raise taxes on anybody." Clinton called lifting the cap "a one trillion dollar tax increase" and said "I am for getting back to fiscal responsibility." She talked of a plan to "rein in the budget" - that is, to impose benefit cuts - and proposed a "bipartisan commission" to ensure that the program was "solvent."

We know what happened next. Obama won the nomination and the presidency. He then pivoted to Clinton's approach, by convening a bipartisan "deficit commission" empowered to look at Social Security (Social Security does not contribute to the deficit) and appointing two longtime benefit-cut advocates to co-chair it.

These reversals may give rise to greater voter skepticism this time around.

Where the voters are.

That means generalities and vague reassurances are less likely to be effective this year, especially when Social Security has become such a hot political issue. An endorsement of its expansion represents a firmer, more concrete commitment to the program. And expansion isn't just a nod to the "Warren wing" of the party, as pundits have suggested. It's also a nod to voters across the political spectrum.

Social Security expansion has "overwhelming" support, regardless of party affiliation, according to political consultant Celinda Lake. Lake's research on this issue showed that 90 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of Republicans, and 73 percent of independents support "increasing Social Security benefits and paying for that increase by having wealthy Americans pay the same rate into Social Security as everybody else."

To her credit, Secretary Clinton has been talking a lot about wealth inequality this time around. But how is that problem addressed? One concrete way is by increasing Social Security benefits.

Where the party is.

Anything less than an embrace of expansion is likely to leave the base unsatisfied. And a refusal to commit to expansion would put Clinton at odds with most or all of the other potential candidates currently being discussed, most of whom (including Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, and reluctant draftee Elizabeth Warren) have already endorsed the idea.

Anything less than expansion would also place Secretary Clinton to the right of Senate Democrats, 42 out of 44 of whom voted to expand Social Security in an amendment which resembled the one studied in Lake's research.

Tell 'em Ike sent you.

Come to think of it: If the Democratic nominee endorses anything less than Social Security expansion, that would place the party to the right of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Republicans.

The GOP boasted about its accomplishments in the 1956 Republican Party platform. "Social Security has been extended to an additional 10 million workers," said the platform, "and the benefits raised for 6 1/2 million."

Eisenhower's platform goes on to say: "We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs - expansion of Social Security."

Benefits increases? Social Security expansion? Ike's 1956 Republicans sound a lot like today's Democratic "Warren wing."

If the Democrats want to win on this issue in 2016, they might be wise to follow the trail Republicans blazed for them sixty years earlier.