On Friday, after reading an article by Daniel Marans in the Huffington Post about how George W. Bush moved the Social Security debate to the right with his failed privatization effort, allowing Democrats to claim the mantle of "not privatization" as good enough, I began to wonder about how Social Security has factored into the Democratic party platform over the years. Party platforms result from the lobbying and negotiating of the various interests within a party and offer an agreed-upon vision, if not exact legislative proposals.
The University of California, Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project is a wonderful resource because it offers party platforms from each presidential election. You can see the Democrats rail against Regan's desire to cut Social Security in 1984 in the indignant language that always dominates the platforms of the opposition. Social Security--or retirement security broadly--had little to no place in the platforms in 1988 and 1992. You can see Gore's supplementary private retirement accounts from 2000.
However, I'm most interested in seeing how the party's language about Social Security has changed over the past decade, looking at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections. Considering that Social Security is often considered one part of a "three-legged stool"--along with pensions and private savings--I will include the information about retirement security overall because it, presumably, should influence the party's thinking about Social Security.
In the 2004 platform, Social Security was addressed in the section entitled "Protecting Retirement Security." It began with a discussion of pensions:
We must protect the retirement security of America's workers and their families. Workers should never lose all their savings because their employer locked those savings into the company's own stock. We will bar that practice. We need to require honest information and full disclosure, and protect older workers from unfair treatment when their benefits are converted to cash balance plans. At the same time, we will strengthen and promote both defined-contribution and defined-benefit pension plans, and increase the portability of retirement savings and help all families save.Let's highlight the main points here that would relate to policy prescriptions.
Point #1: Prohibit companies from locking in employee retirement plans into company stock.
Point #2: Require "full disclosure” of pension fund investments.
Point #3: “Strengthen and promote” both defined-contribution and defined-benefit plans. (The how of this is unclear.)
Point #4: Increase the portability of retirement savings.
Next, the platform discusses Social Security more directly:
We are absolutely committed to preserving Social Security. It is a compact across the generations that has helped tens of millions of Americans live their retirement years in dignity instead of poverty. Democrats believe in the progressive, guaranteed benefit that has ensured that seniors and people with disabilities receive a benefit not subject to the whims of the market or the economy. We oppose privatizing Social Security or raising the retirement age. We oppose reducing the benefits earned by workers just because they have also earned a benefit from certain public retirement plans. We will repeal discriminatory laws that penalize some retired workers and their families while allowing others to receive full benefits. Because the massive deficits under the Bush Administration have raided hundreds of billions of dollars from Social Security, the most important step we can take to strengthen Social Security is to restore fiscal responsibility. Social Security matters to all Americans, Democrats and Republicans, and strengthening Social Security should be a common cause.Point #5: Oppose privatization.
Point #6: Oppose raising the retirement age.
Point #7: Oppose reducing Social Security benefits of public sector workers.
Point #8: The best thing for Social Security is to get the rest of the budget in order. (In other words, stop robbing the Trust Fund to fund wars and tax cuts.) This framing is important because it presents Social Security as the VICTIM of fiscal irresponsibility in other parts of a budget, rather than an unsustainable program that is fiscally irresponsible in its outlays.
The platform also frames Social Security as a nonpartisan or trans-partisan issue that matters to "all Americans." This is a veiled partisan attack, of course, but a useful rhetorical tool regardless.
In 2008, we saw some of the policy recommendations stay, others disappear, and the framing change.
Social Security was mentioned in several sections of the party platform.
First, in the section on Retirement Security:
We will make it a priority to secure for hardworking families the part of the American Dream that includes a secure and healthy retirement. Individuals, employers, and government must all play a role. We will adopt measures to preserve and protect existing public and private pension plans. In the 21st Century, Americans also need better ways to save for retirement. We will automatically enroll every worker in a workplace pension plan that can be carried from job to job and we will match savings for working families who need the help. We will make sure that CEOs can't dump workers' pensions with one hand while they line their own pockets with the other. At platform hearings, Americans made it clear they feel that's an outrage, and it's time we had leaders who treat it as an outrage. We will ensure all employees who have company pensions receive annual disclosures about their pension fund's investments, including full details about which projects have been invested in, the performance of those investments and appropriate details about probable future investments strategies. We also will reform corporate bankruptcy laws so that workers' retirements are a priority for funding and workers are not left with worthless IOU's after years of service…This is relatively similar to the 2004 language regarding pensions although the language is certainly stronger.
Point #1: Preserve and protect public and private pension plans by offering portability and matching savings.
Point #2: Prevent CEOs from gutting pension funds while boosting their bonuses.
Point #3: Require disclosure of pension fund investments.
Point #4: Reform corporate bankruptcy laws to prioritize retirement security.
We reject the notion of the presumptive Republican nominee that Social Security is a disgrace; we believe that it is indispensable. We will fulfill our obligation to strengthen Social Security and to make sure that it provides guaranteed benefits Americans can count on, now and in future generations. We will not privatize it.Point #5: Oppose privatization.
There was also a quick allusion to Social Security in the section on "Opportunity for Women"
“…we will protect Social Security…”As it was in 2004, the Social Security question is framed in the context of "Fiscal Responsibility."
We recognize that Social Security is not in crisis and we should do everything we can to strengthen this vital program, including asking those making over $250,000 to pay a bit more.Point #6: Raise the payroll tax on incomes over $250,000.
Point #7: Do "anything that we can" to strengthen the program. This language is VERY vague. Raising the payroll tax cap is presented as just one of many options under consideration. Unlike the 2004 platform, this one does not rule out raising the retirement age. It also does not rule out cutting benefits or means testing the program.
Social Security appears again in the section on "Restoring Fairness to our Tax Code" with a reiteration of the 2004 point about not penalizing public sector workers.
We will end the penalty within the current Social Security system for public service that exists in several states.Point #8: Eliminate the penalty for public sector employees.
We see Social Security mentioned yet again in the section on "Seniors."
We will safeguard Social Security. We will develop new retirement plans and pension protections that will give Americans a secure, portable way to save for retirement.Point #9: Devise policies to protect pensions and offer new retirement plans.
This point is rather vague and seems to refer to new tax deductions or even an effort to bring back Gore's retirement savings accounts.
In the 2012 platform, Social Security is discussed in the section entitled "Social Security and Medicare."
We believe every American deserves a secure, healthy, and dignified retirement. America's seniors have earned their Medicare and Social Security through a lifetime of hard work and personal responsibility. President Obama is committed to preserving that promise for this and future generations.Point #1: Oppose privatization.
During their working years, Americans contribute to Social Security in exchange for a promise that they will receive an income in retirement. Unlike those in the other party, we will find a solution to protect Social Security for future generations. We will block Republican efforts to subject Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market through privatization. We reject approaches that insist that cutting benefits is the only answer. President Obama will also make it easier for Americans to save on their own for retirement and prepare for unforeseen expenses by participating in retirement accounts at work.
Point #2: Cutting benefits is not “the only answer.” This language is VERY IMPORTANT. The party refuses to oppose cutting benefits. It is just not the ONLY answer. It could be ONE OF SEVERAL answers. This is excellent rhetoric to use when you want to convey the impression of opposition while still providing an easy way out.
Point #3: Support private retirement savings.
In short, Democrats believe that Social Security and Medicare must be kept strong for seniors, people with disabilities, and future generations. Our opponents have shown a shocking willingness to gut these programs to pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest, and we fundamentally reject that approach.There's nothing new in that last passage either other than the fact that, like the 2008 platform, there is a frame of protecting Security Security against the 'evil Republicans' as opposed to the 2004 frame of Social Security as a trans-partisan issue about which all Americans care. That likely stemmed from Bush's actual attempt to privatize it.
The opposition to raising the retirement age has disappeared. The discussion of protecting worker's pensions from corrupt, greedy CEOs also disappeared even though that is still a very real problem.
The official party language is now exceedingly vague, offering it the ability to reduce Social Security benefits without technically violating its platform.