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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Social Security Benefits Hike Should be Democratic Cornerstone

At Huffpo Daniel Marans discusses a debate between pairs of Democratic candidates in the primaries in their respective states over whether or not to cut Social Security benefits.
Marans writes that the debate is erupting in several key senatorial primarties, including Kamala Harris vs. Loretta Sanchez in CA; Donna Edwards vs. Chris Van Hollen in MD; Katie McGinty vs. Joe Sestak in PA; and Alan Grayson vs. Patrick Murphy in FL. Harris, Edwards, Grayson and McGinty are all oposing Social Security cuts. Their opponents are leaving the door open to discussing the proposals suggested by the Bowles-Simpson Commission, which Marans reports include “major cuts to Social Security benefits, including raising the retirement age and cutting the cost-of-living adjustment…”
If this debate seems a little backwards, you are thinking clearly. At a time when millions of elderly Americans who have worked hard for decades are retiring in poverty and economic hardship, Democrats should not cosider reducing these modest retirement benefits at all. And at a time when Democrats are losing the votes of millions of high-turnout senior citizens to Republicans, the Democratic Party should not risk being perceived as wobbly on Social Security benefits.
Rather, the debate should be about how much Social Security benefits should be increased and to what extent eligibility should be expanded. If Democrats truly want to win a stable majority, then the goal should be to make sure every swing voter understands that cuting Social Security benefits is off the table for Democrats, and Dems are the party that wants to improve retirement security, not flirt with undermining it.
Marans quotes some Democrats and progressives who get it:

“While some in Washington have voted to balance the budget on the backs of seniors, Kamala would oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and believes we need to strengthen these safety nets…Elizabeth Warren’s impassioned November 2013 speech embracing benefits expansion became a turning point that helped move the idea into the mainstream. The New York Times editorial board endorsed Social Security expansion in January. And both Democratic presidential candidates have pledged to increase benefits, not cut them.

Marans notes further that Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, argues that “putting a political price on past support for Bowles-Simpson “is not an ideological purity thing. This is about millions of Americans somehow getting by on benefits of $14, $15, $16,000 a year and elected officials thinking they can cut benefits.”
Marans adds that “A Pew study released on March 31 found that opposition to Social Security cuts is the only position shared by a majority of the supporters of all of the presidential candidates in both parties.”
Further, top economists agree that the least painful way to insure the solvency of Social Security is to eliminate the cap on Social Security taxes. As The National Comittee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare explains,

Incredibly, most people still don’t realize that workers who earn more than $110,100 don’t contribute on their full income and that simply removing that tax loophole for high earners would close the vast majority of Social Security’s modest long-term funding gap. Legislation introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) would apply the same payroll tax already paid by more than 9 out of 10 Americans to those with incomes over $250,000 a year. Making the wealthiest Americans pay the same payroll tax already assessed on those with lower incomes should be a no-brainer and it is the solution Americans prefer rather than cutting already modest Social Security benefits.

Nearly all Republicans in congress want to cut Social Security benefits, instead of lifting the cap. When such a simple — and popular — alternative solution to addressing the program’s future funding exists, Democrats should speak with one voice on this issue, as the unflagging champions of increased retirement security for working Americans. Making this principle a central and prominent component of the Democratic Party’s message will win enough votes from American seniors to secure a stable majority.

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