The first of three presidential debates is scheduled for this evening hosted by Jim Lehrer. It will last 90 minutes, and these are the scheduled topics :
Economy – 45 minutes
Health Care – 15 minutes
Role of Government – 15 minutes
Governing - 15 minutes
If Mr. Lehrer does his job well, that second segment will include questions about Medicare and Medicaid along with Obamacare and Romneycare although 15 minutes does not seem nearly enough time to cover the topic particularly given the vast gulf between Democratic and Republican parties.
“[Age 50-plus voters] overwhelmingly think the candidates have not done a good job of explaining their plans on Social Security and Medicare, and say that learning the candidates’ plans to strengthen these programs will help their presidential voting decision.”
(As a reminder, Social Security can pay full benefits until 2033, after which, if it is not fixed, it will be able to pay only 75 percent of benefits. It is important to make changes as soon as possible to avoid drastic problems as the year 2033 approaches.)
Before I move on, take a look at this short segment on Thom Hartmann's show featuring the estimable Nancy Altman who is co-chair of Strengthen Social Security and the author of the definitive work, The Battle For Social Security.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA ON SOCIAL SECURITY
Vice President Joe Biden has said the Obama administration will definitely not touch Social Security, but the president's most recent statement about the program, at the AARP annual conference on 21 September, was more waffly:
"You know, I do think that looking at changing the cap is an important aspect of putting Social Security on a more stable footing," said Obama.
"And what I've said is, is that I'm willing to work with Republicans and examine all their ideas, but what I'm not going to do, as a matter of principle, is to slash benefits or privatize Social Security and suddenly turn it over to Wall Street because we saw what could happen back in 2008 and 2009 when the stock market crashed, and we are still recovering from that."
So he is on record against privatizations. But as we have discussed here in the past, Obama again used that language about not slashing benefits which to me – and many others – leaves the door wide open for what could be defined as modest cuts.
The president's senior campaign strategist, David Axelrod, in an appearance on Morning Joe about a week ago, said that now is not the time to talk about specific proposals for Social Security, but
“The approach has to be a balanced one. We’ve had discussions in the past, and the question is, can you raise the cap? Right now, Social Security cuts off at a lower point, can you raise the cap so upper incomes are paying a little more into the program? And do you adjust the growth of the program? That’s a discussion worth having.”
A twist in the Social Security muddle could come after the election. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is concerned that after the election, in a “grand bargain” with the Republicans to avoid falling off the fiscal cliff, Obama will consent to “entitlement” reform:
"That's exactly what's going to happen," said Sanders. "Unless someone of us stops it - and a number of us are working very hard on this - that's exactly what will happen.
“Everything being equal, unless we stop it, what will happen is there will be a quote-unquote grand bargain after the election in which the White House, some Democrats will sit down with Republicans, they will move to a chained CPI."
A move to chained CPI as the method of calculating Social Security cost-of-living increases would reduce benefits for all beneficiaries, current and future. Senator Sanders and 28 other senators have signed a letter [pdf] opposing Social Security cuts in any deficit reduction package.
So that is the Democratic position on Social Security going into the debate.
MITT ROMNEY ON SOCIAL SECURITY
On 23 September, Mitt Romney told 60 Minutes:
“What I’d do with Social Security is say this: that again, people with higher incomes won’t get the same high growth rate in their benefits as people with lower incomes. People who rely on Social Security should see the same kind of growth rate they’ve had in the past. But higher income folks would receive a little less.”
Well, Social Security is already means tested and Romney had a different story in his 2010 book, No Apology:
”Individual retirement accounts offer an option that would allow today's wage earners to direct a portion of their Social Security tax to a private account rather than go entirely to pay the benefits of current retirees, as is the case today...
“Owners of these individual accounts would invest in a combination of stocks and bonds and - presuming these investments paid a higher rate of return than the new treasuries - the return on these investments would boost the payments to seniors.
“I also like the fact the individual retirement accounts would encourage more Americans to invest in the private sector that powers our economy.”
It's all in the details, isn't it: “presuming...a higher rate.” Or, of course, it could all go down the drain as so many people's modest investments did in 2008.
So Romney is doing with Social Security what he has done on every conceivable issue: confounding us with his cognitive dissonance.
With any luck, Jim Lehrer will ask about Social Security the Role of Government or Governing segment of the debate tonight. If he does, you've got some background now to help evaluate what the candidates say (although their answers will not change my vote, already decided upon).