opinion web
Liberal Opinion Conservative Opinion
Joe Conason
Joe Conason
20 Nov 2015
Why ISIS Needs the 'Useful Idiots' Who Demonize Muslims

When France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls said after last Friday's attacks in Paris, "nous sommes en guerre" &#… Read More.

13 Nov 2015
Hard Questions for Debating Democrats

Imagine for a moment that the purpose of a presidential debate is to elucidate policy differences on matters … Read More.

6 Nov 2015
What Socialism Means to Bernie -- and You

Once upon a time, socialists running for president in the United States had to explain that while they had no … Read More.

A Phony Social Security Debate


As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spar over Social Security, their argument has shed little light on America's most successful domestic program but has instead revealed unattractive aspects of both candidates. Clinton has proved herself again to be excessively elusive in explaining exactly what she believes and why — while Obama has exhibited once more his own strange combination of naivete and opportunism.

This peculiar debate between the leading Democrats — with John Edwards adding his two cents as well — began when Obama glimpsed a chance to not only portray himself as the brave and forthright challenger, but to question the candor and courage of the front-runner as well. Seizing upon her reticence when the issue of Social Security's future funding arose at a candidate forum in Iowa, he and his advisers fashioned a strategy of hitting Clinton from both the left and the right simultaneously.

Soon a commercial aired showing the Illinois senator talking to senior citizens with his sleeves rolled up. "If we have failed to have a real, honest conversation about Social Security, it will not get fixed," he warns them, while the caption scrolls below with promises to oppose privatization, defend current benefits and tax the rich to replenish the program. By suggesting that Social Security faces a problem that must be fixed, he nods to the program's conservative and centrist critics, especially certain figures in the mainstream media; by offering liberal promises, he appeals to the program's defenders in the Democratic base.

In that same ad, he returns to his usual themes of bipartisan cooperation and refreshing honesty. "I don't want to just put my finger out to the wind to see what the polls say," he says sternly. "I want to bring the country together to solve a problem."

At this point, someone might reasonably ask what problem Obama is proposing to solve — and why he believes that the Republican Party's ideologues, who still want to abolish Social Security as we know it, would ever join with a new Democratic president for that purpose. His assumption that the Social Security program poses a problem that he will have to solve if elected president is incorrect.

His assumption that he will be able to bring the country together is almost laughably naive, especially after the Bush administration's humiliating defeat on this issue two years ago. Taken together, both assumptions could be dangerous to the program he is proposing to "save."

But Obama cannot resist the role of the last honest man. According to him, Clinton is "not alone in ducking the issue. Because conventional thinking in Washington says that Social Security is the third rail of American politics. It says you should hedge, and dodge, and spin, but at all costs, don't answer."

Merely by demanding an "honest conversation" on the subject, however, Obama plays into the old tactics used by President Bush and other conservative leaders, who hoped to convince voters that Social Security was on the brink of bankruptcy. In truth, the program will be solvent for decades to come, despite White House propaganda to the contrary.

How solvent will depend on future rates of economic growth, immigration, life spans and a host of other factors, but unless historic trends suddenly turn sharply downward, there is no need to rush into any "solutions" that involve raising taxes or cutting benefits. The president's alarming assertions about the program's future insolvency always contradicted his sunny predictions of burgeoning economic growth, let alone the promises of big returns on privatized retirement accounts. It was simply a case of what the president used to call fuzzy math.

But if Obama is mistaken in his opportunism, at least part of the blame lies with Clinton, whose reluctance to speak forthrightly about Social Security dates back to the Bush privatization campaign. As the most celebrated Democrat in the Senate and a likely presidential candidate, she ought to have taken a leading role in the fight to preserve her party's keystone legislation. She should have said then what she can still say now. And she should tell both Obama and Edwards to stop playing primary politics with Social Security when there are real fiscal issues that require our attention.

Someday in the distant future, Social Security may need adjustments. What we must confront much sooner are the exploding costs of Medicare and Medicaid — and that will mean a new health care system that combines cost controls with quality care and universal coverage. That is what the Democrats should be debating.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer ( To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



0 Comments | Post Comment
Already have an account? Log in.
New Account  
Your Name:
Your E-mail:
Your Password:
Confirm Your Password:

Please allow a few minutes for your comment to be posted.

Enter the numbers to the right: comments policy
Joe Conason
Nov. `15
Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 1 2 3 4 5
About the author About the author
Write the author Write the author
Printer friendly format Printer friendly format
Email to friend Email to friend
View by Month
R. Emmett Tyrrell
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.Updated 26 Nov 2015
Veronique de RugyUpdated 26 Nov 2015
Froma Harrop
Froma HarropUpdated 26 Nov 2015

18 Oct 2012 Bad Arithmetic: Top Romney Economist Admits 'Jobs Plan' Numbers Don't Compute

8 May 2008 Hillary Plays the Crazy Card

9 Aug 2007 The GOP's Big Health Scare