The GOP’s Weird Social Security Gambit
Chris Christie wants to means-test it. And he, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio want to raise the retirement age. But most Americans hate the idea. How Hillary Clinton can capitalize.
Now I know we don’t really care about Chris Christie and he’s less popular in New Jersey these days than air pollution in Elizabeth, but he actually said something interesting in his little “Hey, I’m still here” media blitz. He went after Social Security for no apparent reason.
Bizarre is the only word I can come up with for Christie’s proposal to means-test Social Security while also raising the retirement age to 69. It’s bizarre first because most experts think means-testing, which for Christie would start at $80,000, would be the death of the system. As the standard line goes, it would turn Social Security from an entitlement program to a welfare program, and welfare programs aren’t popular, so support for it would plunge, and it would end.
Of course, some people want that, so there is support for the idea among conservative policymakers. But here’s the thing, which is reason No. 2 the idea is bizarre: Who exactly was clamoring for this? Nobody! It’s been years since we’ve heard anyone making a big fuss about means-testing. Conservatives know it’s totally unrealistic, so they just don’t bring it up much. It’s akin to liberals and marginal tax rate north of 50 percent on dollars earned above some really huge amount. We’re for it in theory, sure, but we know it’s not in the cards, so there’s no point in even bringing it up. If that’s Christie’s lead issue, it doesn’t say a lot for his political instincts. You don’t even get truth-teller cred for this one, except from Pete Peterson and maybe The Washington Post editorial board (which hasn’t weighed in on Christie that I’ve seen but which generally backs “reining in” entitlements).
In New Hampshire over the weekend, many of the other leading Republicans, most notably Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, agreed with Christie on the retirement-age question. I don’t think this is crazy talk. We’re living longer, and while people who perform hard physical labor if anything should have their retirement ages lowered, more of us do the kind of work that we can keep doing after 65. The retirement age is 67 in Norway, and other European countries are debating an increase to 67. The age at which an American will be eligible to receive full benefits will rise from 65 to 67 by 2027, so an increase is already on the books.
But while I may not think the idea is crazy talk, my fellow Americans are decidedly cool to it, disagreeing with such a proposal by nearly 2-to-1 in most polls you see. And of course any talk about changing Social Security scares old people, who have increasingly been voting Republican.
So why are Republicans talking about it? It’s kind of mystifying. I suppose business broadly supports it. But I think it’s mostly become just an anti-government thing. The real position is to oppose Social Security entirely, because it’s socialism and so forth. But of course they can’t say that, so they back things like means-testing and raising the retirement age. That is a benefits cut, which I suppose they think in the back of their minds will help whittle away at the whole thing over time. Any time you hear a Republican talk about “saving” Social Security or Medicare, they mean “save” in the sense of “destroy.” Or at least “disfigure.”
On the other side, Democrats are suddenly talking about increasing benefits. In the Senate in late March, Elizabeth Warren introduced a mostly symbolic resolution calling for an increase in benefits (it didn’t say exactly how) and it got the support of 42 of 44 voting Democratic senators. Joe Manchin, even! (The nays were Delaware’s Tom Carper, a longtime deficit hawk, and Heidi Heitkamp, who represents deep-red North Dakota.)
No word on all this yet from You Know Who. But what Hillary Clinton does on Social Security will be a real indicator of how drunk on Populism Kool-Aid she’s willing to allow herself to get. Will she, for example, support raising the payroll tax cap? Right now, earnings up to $118,500 are subject to the Social Security and Medicare tax. (That figure rises every year with inflation.) For many liberals—though by no means all, since a lot of them dislike the payroll tax in the first place—doubling, tripling, quadrupling that cap is kind of an obvious step. It even polls well.
The last time she was a presidential candidate, Clinton seems to have tried to have it both ways on this one. It was Barack Obama who pretty consistently supported raising the cap, even if he didn’t talk about it much. According to this interesting report from the left-ish economics journal Dollars and Sense, Clinton’s campaign distributed a flier in Nevada lighting into Obama for wanting to raise the cap so he could “send more of Nevada families’ hard-earned dollars to Washington.”
Yet apparently an AP reporter heard Clinton tell an Iowa voter that she’d support a so-called doughnut-hole approach that would keep the cap where it is and then re-impose a payroll tax at a higher income level (at the time she is supposed to have suggested $200,000). That would spare the vast majority of upper-middle-class earners—voters with lots of political muscle, that is—from a tax increase.
I would bet Clinton goes this route if she does anything, although four years on, the re-imposition number will likely be higher than $200,000. But even just putting it into the conversation will be important. The entire Social Security debate is about how to cut it, not how to expand it. And yes, a tax is a tax, and it’s always risky to talk about one, but as taxes go, this one is probably less risky than most. People like Social Security and seem to grasp that what they pay in, they get back, which is still true for the vast majority of retirees, who get somewhat more back in benefits than they put in.
So let the Republicans talk about how to cut. Clinton ought to do the opposite. She should do it in her responsible, Wellesley-girl way. She’s not Warren and shouldn’t try to be. But she can still leave the Republicans looking stingy and small.