What About Social Security Was McCain Calling a “Disgrace?”

By Natalie Gewargis

Jul 9, 2008 3:23pm

At a town hall meeting in Denver, Colo., on July 7, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., responded to a question about young people not anticipating ever receiving Social Security, and his remarks have invited Democratic salvos.

"Many of the proposals that are being created for people of my generation no longer include Social Security because of the belief it will not be there," the questioner asked. "Tell me how you plan to fix it."

"I’d like to start out by giving you a little straight talk," McCain responded. Under the present set-up, because we’ve mortgaged our children’s futures, you will not have Social Security benefits that present-day retirees have unless we fix it. And Americans have got to understand that. Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that’s a disgrace. It’s an absolute disgrace, and it’s got to be fixed."

Continued McCain: "Now, how do you fix it? Now, how do you fix it? You fix it by reaching across the aisle, and you say to the Democrats, ‘Sit down with me at the table. Sit down with me, the way Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill did the last time that Social Security was in deep trouble, and that was way back in 1983.’"

You can watch some of the exchange HERE.

**

So…what exactly was McCain calling a disgrace?

The sentence immediately preceding what McCain called a "disgrace" referred to the fact that "we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today."

The liberal muck-raking website Talking Points Memo has taken McCain’s remarks at face value,  with Josh Marshall writing:   "It’s really a disgrace? That’s how the system was designed to operate. And it’s served as financial bedrock of retirement security in this country for going on a century."

Others have weighed in. Former Federal Communications Commission chairman (and McCain nemesis) Reed Hundt writes in a blog posting titled "Why Isn’t This News?"  that "If Senator McCain doesn’t want payroll taxes to fund Social Security (as has long been the case), then how does he propose to pay for it?"

Adds Todd Gitlin: "Let’s be generous to McCain and assume that the ‘that’ which is an ‘absolute disgrace’ is the impending zero point toward which Social Security is purportedly tending. (If he really means that the disgrace is young workers subsidizing retired workers, he really is an economic idiot. The subsidy is the very bedrock, the principle, the logic, the elementary idea of all insurance. Period.) But still, even then, where is scrutiny of the claim that Social Security is in jeopardy? When Bush made such ridiculous claims in 2005, he spent all his political capital and then some. Why is McCain getting this pass? When the Straight Talk Express makes so many such stops, when does it become the Straight Talk Local?   Why isn’t this A Story? The Gaffe of the Week? Breaking News? A Clip to Be Rebroadcast Endlessly?"

Today the Democratic National Committee will host a conference call to, in the words of the DNC press release, "blast John McCain for saying the way Social Security is funded, the very essence of the program, is a disgrace."

Those doing the blasting will be AFSCME International President Gerald McEntee, the Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker, the DNC’s Brad Woodhouse and other Social Security experts and advocates.

**

I asked the McCain campaign what Sen. McCain was referring to with the word "disgrace."

McCain spox Brian Rogers says that "the disgrace is our failure to fix the long-run imbalance in Social Security — a failure of leadership evidenced by our willingness to kick to problem to the next generation of leaders. He’s also describing the looming and increasing demographic pressures confronting the Social Security system and Washington’s utter failure to address it."

Rogers points out that in an April 2007 speech in Memphis, McCain said:

"I’ll fight to save the future of Social Security and Medicare.  I won’t leave office without doing everything I can to fix the fiscal problem that, more than any other, threatens our future prosperity and power.  No problem is in more need of honesty than the looming insolvency of our entitlement programs.  No government program is the object of more political posturing and spin than Social Security and Medicare.  Americans have the right to know the truth, no matter how bad it is.  So here’s a little straight talk:  the current Social Security system is unsustainable.  Period.  A half century ago, sixteen American workers supported every retiree.  Today, it’s just three.  Soon, it will be only two.  If we don’t make some tough choices, Social Security and Medicare either won’t be there for our children and grandchildren or we will have had to raise taxes so dramatically to support them that we will have crushed the prosperity of average Americans."

So, according to the McCain campaign, the senator was trying to explain how the system works but cut it short before describing the demographic pressures – as he did in the August 2007 speech.

That long-term imbalance and Washington’s failure to fix it is the disgrace, he meant to say, the McCain campaign suggests.

What say you?

- jpt

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