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November 05, 2013 3:36 PM Counter-Polarizing the Social Security Debate

By Ed Kilgore

The idea has been kicking around think tanks (notably the Economic Policy Institute) and the blogosphere (particularly Atrios, who’s made this a personal crusade) for a while, but now is getting some serious buzz in the Senate: it’s time not to trim but to expand Social Security benefits.

Unions and progressive activists are uniting around Tom Harkin’s bill to boost benefits by $70 a month for all Social Security recipients (and more for those heavily dependent on benefits for retirement security), increase (rather than decrease, as the “chained CPI” tentatively accepted by the White House as part of a not-going-to-happen “grand bargain” would do) the cost-of-living adjustment formula, and pay for it all by eliminating the regressive payroll tax cap for the program.

It’s obviously a good move for progressives to insist on looking at Social Security not as a part of the “entitlement problem,” but as a crucial part of a system of retirement security that’s been deeply eroded by recession-decimated assets and the shift in private-sector pensions from defined benefit to defined contribution plans.

But there’s a more purely political angle that’s now being emphasized by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), as discussed today by Greg Sargent:

Brown argues that if Republicans push for Social Security benefits cuts as part of any deal, Dems should counter with the Harkin proposal to shift the terms of the debate in a Democratic direction. Democratic priorities, he said, should be centered on the idea that declining pensions and wages (and savings) are undermining retirement security, and added that the public strongly opposed gutting social insurance.
“The situation for seniors is only going to get worse, because the assault on pensions and wages is making it more and more difficult for a worker to save for the future,” Brown said. “Why are we having a debate over how much we are going to hurt seniors? The debate should be over how we should structure a pension for seniors that will help them. Why would we play on their playing field? Democrats need to play offense here. Force Republicans to say what it is they really want to do. Republicans just don’t like social insurance.”

As should be obvious, Brown is talking about counter-polarizing the “entitlement” debate instead of taking a “responsible but flexible” posture to be contrasted with GOP “extremism,” which has been the White House approach throughout the Obama administration (and to some extent, the Clinton administration). The interesting wrinkle here, of course, is that there are no particular signs Obama is going to shift his tactics or rhetoric in this direction, and it could, in fact, tempt him to “triangulate” against Democrats wanting to expand benefits and Republican wanting to cut them.

Aside from where this leaves Obama if Democrats rally to Harkin’s and Brown’s cause, it’s interesting that Brown is arguing that getting more aggressive about Social Security will force Republicans to become more explicit about their ultimate plans for the program. It’s true that a “debate” over Social Security can easily obscure conservative designs on the safety net if it remains stuck in the weeds of COLA formulas and various estimates of solvency. But it’s likely Republicans would adjust to a broader debate by simply contrasting their plans to “save” Social Security with Democratic determination to “bankrupt” it.

The actual ace-in-the-hole for the “expand Social Security” message may be less about shifting the frame or changing the playing field than the simple fact that voters, and particularly the older voters on which the Republican Party so heavily relies, are likely to support higher benefits however they feel about “entitlements” as an abstraction, and whether or not they are vulnerable to GOP efforts to wedge them away from younger Americans with some sort of grandfathering provision for current retirees. And as noted earlier, the broader subject of rapidly eroding retirement security is long-overdue for serious public debate.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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