In the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore was roundly mocked on “Saturday Night Live” and elsewhere for promising multiple times during a presidential debate that unlike his Republican opponent, he would fight to preserve Social Security by putting it in a “lockbox.” The mockery was for what pundits considered Gore’s condescending tone and puzzling repetition of the word lockbox, but he was tapping into a core truth: Americans, across all political parties, believe in protecting Social Security. According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, 74% of Americans say Social Security benefits “should not be reduced in any way.”
Twenty years later, Democratic presidential candidates are still touting their ability to protect the program, even arguing over who would do a better job.
In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper last week, Bernie Sanders attacked fellow candidate former Vice President Joe Biden for his record on Social Security, claiming Biden’s support for cutting the popular program makes him less electable. The Sanders campaign followed up the next day in an email newsletter to supporters that said, “In 2018, Biden lauded Paul Ryan for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”
Biden’s campaign pushed back against the newsletter’s attacks, contending the comments were taken out of context. According to The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, however, Biden’s record on Social Security is far worse than one potentially misinterpreted remark. Indeed, as Grim lays out, Biden has been advocating for cuts to Social Security for roughly 40 years. In 1984, in the midst of President Reagan’s frenzy to cut the federal safety net, Biden worked with Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley calling “for a freeze on federal spending and insisted on including Social Security in that freeze,” which even the Reagan administration was against.
That plan was rejected, but Biden continued to make similar pushes for cuts over the years. This included in 1994, after Republicans won both chambers of Congress, when Biden joined his GOP colleagues in calling for freezing federal spending. Per Grim:
His general advocacy for budget austerity made him a leading combatant in the centrist-wing battle against the party’s retreating liberals in the 1980s and ’90s.
‘When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well,’ [Biden] told the Senate in 1995. ‘I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans’ benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.’ (A freeze would have reduced the amount that would be paid out, cutting the program’s benefit.)
This approach was common for Democrats in the Clinton era, Grim notes, part of “the belief that old tax-and-spend liberals were out, and that a type of “New Democrat” was needed, one who understood the necessity of fiscal restraint.”
Grim also points out that Biden has admitted, during interviews, the dangers of his views within the Democratic Party. “One of the things my political advisers say to me, is, whoa, don’t touch that third rail,” Biden told the late Tim Russert, referring to Social Security, in an interview during the 2008 presidential primary.
According to his current campaign website, Biden now supports expanding Social Security. Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, defended Biden’s record to The Intercept, saying: “As Bernie Sanders himself said in 2015 — after all of these quotes — ‘Joe Biden is a man who has devoted his entire life to public service and to the well-being of working families and the middle class.”
The Social Security program remains extremely popular. About 57% of American retirees told pollsters that Social Security benefits are a “major” source of their income, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. An analysis of 10 years of Gallup data reveals that number jumps to 78% for retirees making less than $30,000 per year, and 65% of those making from $30,000 to $50,000.
Read Grim’s full story here.