Social Security Is Having a Moment

Until recently, Democrats were willing to bargain on entitlements. Here’s how Social Security expansion became a liberal cause again.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachussetts.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren attends a Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 24, 2015.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

You probably missed it, but, late last month, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders helped push the Democratic Party a little to the left.

During a last-minute budget session, the Massachusetts senator introduced an amendment to “expand and protect Social Security” by raising taxes to keep the program solvent and increasing benefits to better assist seniors. The resolution failed to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, but not before Warren won support from all but two of her Democratic colleagues. (The holdouts were Tom Carper of Delaware and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.)

Likewise, during the same session, Sanders introduced an amendment protecting all Americans from cuts to earned Social Security benefits. It also failed the GOP Senate, but—like Warren’s amendment—it won support from virtually every Democrat in the chamber. Indeed, as a Monday story in the Wall Street Journal points out, Social Security expansion has entered the Democratic mainstream, touted by lawmakers and pushed by presidential candidates like Martin O’Malley, as well as congressional candidates like Rep. Donna Edwards, who is running for an open Senate seat in Maryland.

Now, “Democrats Support Social Security” may sound like a nonstory, a political “Dog Bites Man.” But it’s not. Think back to the period stretching from just after the Democratic nadir of the 2010 midterm elections to just after the 2012 presidential election when, caught in Washington’s hysteria over spending, Barack Obama and other Democrats tried hard to strike a bipartisan “grand bargain” on debt and deficits. In exchange for a modest tax hike of $100 billion over 10 years—targeted at the wealthiest Americans—Democrats were willing to cut spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

It was an outrageous deal. For almost nothing, Obama was giving away the store on core party priorities; for decades, Democrats defended retirement programs with near-religious zeal. Now, a Democratic president was clearing the field for an attack on two pillars of the welfare state. But blinded by ideology and their hatred of Obama, House Republicans couldn’t see the great deal in front of them. They rejected it, leaving Obama to shrink from the grand bargain and gradually abandon the entire approach.

Liberals didn’t abandon Obama over his push for entitlement cuts. Instead, they recalibrated. Instead of a perpetual defense—in which they rallied to fight attacks on retirement programs—they would go on the offense, pushing the party to adopt a more expansive vision of Social Security and other entitlements. It helps that there’s a real problem. Americans are woefully unready for retirement, with little savings and an individualized system of defined contributions and 401Ks that isn’t durable in the face of sluggish growth and a weak economy. Social Security isn’t perfect, but it’s a strong foundation for a broader program of retirement security.

It’s why, in 2012, the AFL-CIO called for Democrats to expand the program. “To compensate for the decline of traditional pensions and the loss of retirement savings,” wrote the organization, “Social Security retirement benefits must be increased across the board, which would be especially meaningful for low-income seniors.” The next year, the left-leaning New America Foundation released a broad plan for expanding Social Security by creating a new branch of the program—Part B—that would give a flat benefit to all retirees in addition to the existing Old Age and Survivors Insurance. (Disclosure: New America is a partner in Slate’s Future Tense.) And while this pitch was meant to solve a problem, it was also meant to challenge the prevailing view at the time that the entitlement should be cut. “At present the discussion is dominated by those who want to privatize or shrink Social Security and those on the defensive who propose merely incremental reforms to preserve it,” wrote the authors. “We seek not merely to move the ball, but also to move the goalpost in order to enlarge the boundaries of the national conversation about the future of retirement security in America.”

Liberal activists pushed expansion through 2013 and 2014, with unions and liberal groups like Social Security Works and the Progressive Change Committee Campaign at the forefront. Eventually, this activity bubbled through to Democratic lawmakers. Facing a tough—and ultimately futile—re-election campaign, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich introduced his plan to protect Social Security by lifting the cap on income subject to the payroll tax, from its present level of $113,700. That same year, then Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin pushed a plan to boost benefits, and Warren joined the fight with a floor speech against a proposal to chain Social Security benefits to a different—and less generous—measure of inflation.

The March amendments, in other words, were the culmination of a longer process sparked by liberal activists and Democratic insiders, and pushed along by friendly senators. Because of her high public profile, Warren will almost certainly get most of the credit for pushing the Democratic Party to adopt Social Security expansion as a priority. But it’s more accurate to say that she—along with lawmakers like Joe Manchin of West Virginia—saw where the winds were blowing, and opened their sails accordingly.

But the real test of Social Security’s resurgence as a liberal cause is Hillary Clinton. When Social Security solvency meant benefit cuts, she was open to benefit cuts. Now it doesn’t. But we don’t know where Clinton will fall. We do know that she hasn’t locked down the Democratic presidential nomination completely. There are still stakeholders to win and voters to persuade. If liberals make expansion a priority, will Clinton sign on? Or does she have enough party support to resist the call of Elizabeth Warren and keep her prior commitment to “entitlement reform?” There’s no answer yet, but it will come. That, after all, is what primaries are for.