On ABC's "This Week" today, George Stephanoupols asked John McCain about Social Security. Specifically, he asked about McCain's support for privatization--that is, allowing workers to withhold their contributions to the Trust Fund and invest, instead, in private savings accounts.
McCain demurred, saying* "I have said, and I will say, that everything has to be on the table."
Afterwards, he talked about staging some sort of bipartisan discussions on the topic, pointing to the negotiations that Ronald Reagan and then-Speaker Tip O'Neill had back in the early 1980s. Those discussions eventually led to a bipartisan deal, involving some modest benefit and tax changes, that vastly improved the program's financial outlook. Citing those as a success, McCain said "We will all have to sit down."
These answers were consistent with the official campaign line that emerged earlier this month, following McCain's explicit support for privatization. Speaking on CNN, McCain had said "I want young workers to be able to, if they choose, to take part of their own money, which is their taxes, and put it in an account which has their name on it." That was on the same day that McCain described the system for financing Social Security, in which today's retirees draw on money contributed from today's taxpayers, as a "disgrace." (That's how the system has always worked; for more on this, see unofficial Social Security guardian Josh Marshall here and here.)
You can see why the campaign and (a bit belatedly) McCain himself prefer to downplay those statements and talk, instead, about bipartisan discussions. It sounds a lot less threatening. After all, if McCain is merely looking to "sit down" and negotiate, like both Reagan and O'Neill were willing to do back in the 1980s, what could be wrong with that?
Well, for one thing, the comparison isn't apt. Here's Brookings' Paul Light:
...there was a real and pressing deadline for action in 1983 that simply does not exist today. Without action by March or April 1983, the Social Security trust fund would have started to run a slight deficit by midsummer. Social Security would not have literally gone bankrupt, but there would have been a slight disruption in check processing until the needed revenue dribbled in.
As countless experts have reminded us, today Social Security does indeed face a long-term financial shortfall. But it's a small deficit that we could fix pretty easily with some combination of very modest benefit and tax changes. (In fact, Obama has actually proposed one.) There is no reason to put privatization, a radical change to the program's fundamental character, on the table.
And that brings up the second problem with this line of argument. "Everything has to be on the table" may sound open-minded and innocuous, but that really depends on the meaning of "everything," doesn't it?
Consider a different, entirely hypothetical, example. If Obama called for bipartisan talks on Iraq and refused to rule out an immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq, because "everything has to be on the table," McCain would crucify him for it. And rightly so. Even bipartisan discussions have agendas and boundaries.
To be sure, McCain doesn't sound intent on crusading for privatization the way President Bush did, if only because that's what political circumstances demand. (Bush's failed crusade for privatization was, arguably, the Waterloo for his activist agenda on economic policy.) But in the context of a general election, the distinction is decidedly small.
If McCain thinks privatization should be within the boundaries of discussion, that's still taking a position on the issue--a position that puts him on the side of tearing down one of our most important, and rightly cherished, government programs. Obama, of course, is on the opposite side. Voters should keep that in mind.
*Note: My notes were a little rough; if I can find a full transcript, I'll revise accordingly.