Reprinted from Campaign For America's Future
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 cliches 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 above 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.