On Sunday, Joe Biden appeared to signal that he would be open to Social Security cuts…or at least to give a muddled response to his previous position that he looked on the idea with favor.
In an interview with New Hampshire ABC-affiliate WMUR, the former Vice President blurted out that his position “hasn’t changed” from “20 years ago” when he had supported a total government spending freeze to reduce the deficit that would have included Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustments. Although he walked the statement back on the follow-up question, his contradictory answers did not go unnoticed on Twitter.
”’That was 20 years ago,’ says Biden, referring to his support for spending freezes, including social security, implying he no longer holds such a view,” wrote journalist Mehdi Hasan. “Literally five seconds later: ‘My position hasn’t changed.’ He has serious issues.”
The Sanders campaign didn't miss it either.
With the Iowa caucuses drawing closer by the day, Social Security has become a major battle in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary with front-runners Sanders and the former VP trading blows on the subject.
Biden has a four-decade record of openness to cutting social programs—with Social Security and Medicare at the top of the list. Not only did Biden support total government spending freezes in the ‘80s, he also backed the 1995 Balanced Budget Amendment. The centerpiece of the Republican Party’s “Contract With America,” the amendment would have forced spending cuts across the board. Two years later, Biden backed the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which included the $112 billion in cuts to Medicare, the deepest in the history of the program at that point, as well as the creation of a private option for beneficiaries that would later be known as Medicare Advantage. By his 2007-2008 presidential bid, Biden hadn’t changed his tune, at one point telling a room full of Iowa donors that Americans understood “tough decisions” needed to be made with regards to Social Security.
“Folks, Americans know we have to fix Social Security; they know we can’t grow our way to a solution,” Biden said. “They know we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. They’re ready to make these decisions.”
As VP, Biden spearheaded another effort to cut Social Security after the 2010 midterms as part of the “grand bargain” with congressional Republicans. Even as recently as 2018, Biden was calling for means-tested cuts and ambiguous “adjustments” to the program in an appearance at the Brookings Institution. The Sanders campaign posted the clip from that speech, prompting allegations from the Biden camp that it had been “doctored.”
Biden made his latest statements on WMUR in the context of a question about the battle with Sanders. Shortly after he asserted his consistency of position, Biden walked it backed, contradicting himself.
The interaction went as follows:
“You’ve said that he quote ‘doctored’ video from the Senate back in the day talking about Social Security, but you did argue that cost-of-living adjustments as part of a general spending freeze were necessary to cut federal spending and reduce the deficit,” interviewer Alex Sexton began. “That aside—”
“That was 20 years ago,” the former VP interjected.
“Look, even if Sanders is playing a little rough here and your position has changed. What about those Democratic voters who say—” Sexton continued.
“My position hasn’t changed,” Biden interjected again.
Sexton finished his question. “What about those Democratic voters who say Bernie’s been consistent this whole time?”
“Well he hasn’t been,” came Biden’s response, dismissing decades of footage to the contrary. “But I’m not going to attack Bernie. He hasn’t even been consistent on Social Security.”
Biden then launched into a description of his plan.
“I am going to increase Social Security benefits,” he explained. “I’m going to raise taxes for people making over 400,000 dollars so they pay the same tax on every dollar you pay at your salary or at 100,000 or 50 or 40,000 dollars. That will, in fact, allow us to get those folks who are out living their Social Security in terms of benefits—be able them to increase their benefits; those families where a spouse dies and the total Social Security goes down, increase their benefits and make it solvent for that child of yours I met.”
“So when you say your position hasn’t changed, you were advocating for COLA freezes then, but you don’t think they should happen now,” Sexton followed up on the confusing answer.
“No, I don’t think they should, and that was in the context of a gigantic piece of legislation relating to what we’re in a gigantic deficit at the moment,” Biden said. “And it wasn’t to totally freeze them; it was to freeze for that one year and if we had done everything else; we froze across the board, including the military.”
It is unclear, based on Biden’s answers, what—if not cuts—he would be referring to when he said his position had not changed. Paste reached out to the Biden campaign for clarification but our inquiries went unanswered.