Tampa, Fla. — So the Republicans are fighting about Social Security and the Democrats are exulting over it. This is news?
Ho hum. This has been happening, on and off, for three-quarters of a century. During a good deal of that time, Republicans have railed against Social Security and risked voter disapproval while Democrats have twisted their rivals’ worries and words out of context. Social Security may be a good program, it may be good politics, but
almost never since Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security bill into law in 1935 has it prompted a good debate.
It’s not doing so this year, when, more than ever, we need a good debate on Social Security, which today supports about 54 million people. Here’s a simple explanation why: There soon will be too few workers supporting too many beneficiaries for a pay-as-you-go system like Social Security to survive without dramatic change.
The truth is that Social Security was approved 76 years ago with bipartisan support, with 81 Republicans in the House supporting the legislation along with 16 Republicans in the Senate. The 15 Democrats who opposed the bill in the House were matched exactly by 15 Republicans.
This was as bipartisan a bill as there has been on a controversial matter in history, unless of course you want to look at the Medicare Act vote exactly 30 years later. Seventy House Republicans voted for that cornerstone of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
Even so, Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas, the GOP’s presidential nominee a year after Social Security was passed, expressed real doubts about Social Security, beginning with a campaign speech called “I Will Not Promise the Moon” in which he said the program was “unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted and wastefully financed.” He lost every state but Maine and Vermont.
For the two decades that followed Landon’s defeat in 1936, Republicans were chary of attacking Social Security. Thirteen days after taking his oath of office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his first State of the Union message to Congress and, when discussing the need for greater effectiveness of government programs, he said, “The provisions of the old-age and survivors insurance law should promptly be extended to cover millions of citizens who have been left out of the Social Security system.”
Warning from Ike
Later, in a remarkable letter Eisenhower wrote to his brother, Edgar, on Nov. 8, 1954, he said that if any party toyed with abolishing Social Security program, “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”
In this letter, a revealing discourse on the Eisenhower political philosophy to a brother critical of some of the administration’s actions, the president worried that “this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions.” Then he said of those who would eliminate Social Security: “There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things ... Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
Precisely a decade later, GOP nominee Barry Goldwater wondered out loud about abolishing Social Security. The notion seemed tailor-made for the Democrats’ strategy, which was to portray the Arizonan as a radical, even a crackpot. Goldwater’s rhetoric was extreme but his notion, that the system ought to be voluntary, was echoed in the famous 1964 televised pre-election speech that made Ronald Reagan a national political figure and later was adopted by the George W. Bush administration.
Republicans stumbled in the Reagan years when they permitted House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill of Massachusetts to portray them as enemies of Social Security, and thus of old people. In the 1982 election, the Republicans lost 27 seats.
Last week the issue flared again in the Republican debate here, after Texas Gov. Rick Perry had suggested, not all that inaccurately, that Social Security was a “Ponzi scheme.” The Mitt Romney campaign promptly distributed pamphlets in this state, where a fifth of the population is on Social Security, asking pointedly, “How can we trust anyone who wants to kill Social Security?” Perry then offered his colorful “slam dunk” guarantee to current Social Security recipients.
Serious issues remain
But the issue remains how to support this program, how broadly it should be applied, how much of it should be taxed and what the government should set as the retirement age.
This is no academic exercise. The greatest economic crisis facing the United States today isn’t the national deficit or the trade deficit. It is the savings deficit. Some Americans may be putting away more money than they did a decade ago, but nowhere near enough.
This year’s Retirement Confidence Survey shows that seven Americans out of 10 believe they are not on track to save enough for retirement. That may well underestimate the reality. The Employee Benefit Research Institute found this year that large chunks of lower-income Americans may well have to work until they are 80 to have enough money to cover basic living expenses.
All of which brings us back to Alf Landon — a sentence no one expected to be typed in the year 2011. But Landon’s critique of Social Security included this riff:
“It assumes that Americans are irresponsible. It assumes that old-age pensions are necessary because Americans lack the foresight to provide for their old age.”
Let’s punt that question over to the sociologists.
The political scientists, however, realize that in some form Social Security is here to stay. In that case, Democrats as well as Republicans are going to have to do what they don’t want to do, which is to bring the system in line with both the savings crisis and the deficit crisis. The deficit-reduction plan the president released last week said not a word about Social Security.
“Even discussing those options is highly unpopular with a majority of Americans,” one brave American politician said in a speech exactly 15 years ago this week, “in large part because we lack leadership that is able and willing to make a clear, compelling case for such necessary, long-term action.” The speaker was Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, Republican of Kansas and daughter of the 1936 Republican nominee. The venue was Kansas State University and the occasion was the 107th Alf Landon Lecture.