The most heated moments in Sunday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate came during an exchange between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders over Social Security.
For months now, Sanders has slammed Biden on the issue, arguing that the former vice president had advocated for cuts to the program dating back to his days in the Senate. Biden has denied it.
Sanders pressed the issue again Sunday night. “Have you been on the floor of the Senate, you were in the Senate for a few years, time and time again talking about the necessity, with pride, about cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare, cutting veterans programs?” he asked.
“No,” Biden said.
“All right, America, go to the website right now, go to the YouTube right now,” Sanders exhorted.
Biden later said he “did not talk about the need to cut any of those programs.”
The dispute: Sanders’ campaign has run an ad saying that "Biden has advocated cutting Social Security for 40 years" and showing clips of Biden talking about the program, including a speech as a senator in 1995 in which he called for a spending freeze on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as part of a proposal to address the national debt.
The facts: The clips are real, and Biden has at various times in his long career in politics supported freezes to cost-of-living adjustments and expressed openness to other changes to Social Security, including increasing the retirement age, in the context of plans and negotiations to address the national debt.
But various fact checkers have rated Sanders’ attacks as “misleading” or lacking context. “In some cases, Biden offered proposals intended to counter more extreme options offered by Republicans. At other times, Biden indicated a willingness to bargain with Republicans, though any deal resulting in spending reductions in entitlement programs was forever elusive,” The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler explained earlier this month.
The former vice president said at Sunday’s debate that, while everything was on the table for the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction commission formed under President Obama, he did not support any of the proposed cuts. Biden has at other times sought to protect Social Security benefits, and his current campaign platform now includes a call to strengthen Social Security and have the program provide a larger benefit to older Americans.
What it all means: Biden’s past willingness to put Social Security on the table in negotiations is the crux of criticisms from Sanders and others on the left. But with deficit concerns having largely faded from the political debate, Biden has sought to distance himself from those past positions in his current campaign. Looking forward, the question is whether Biden’s past flexibility or his current policy position matters more.
The bottom line: Sanders’ attacks, and Biden’s defense, might not matter much to voters preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic. “I care about Biden’s position on Simpson-Bowles. I really do,” The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer tweeted. “But we can get back to the possibility that one million Americans might die because of government failure in the coming months?” Right now, all other issues seem secondary.