Last week, the topics of the third and final presidential debate were announced. Given that the debate is being hosted by Fox News’s Chris Wallace, perhaps it should come as no surprise that, along with immigration and “foreign hot spots,” one of the topics the candidates will spar on is “debt and entitlements.” For a sixth of the debate’s running time, the American public will most likely get an earful about the need to rein in entitlements and cut the national debt, and the two candidates’ specific plans for doing both.
This follows on the heels of the vice presidential debate, where CBS News’s Elaine Quijano also prodded the candidates on the subject. “Neither of your economic plans will reduce the growing $19 trillion gross national debt,” she said. “Are you concerned that adding more to the debt could be disastrous for the country?”
Later in the night, Quijano took aim at Social Security, warning that the program would run out of money in eighteen years. In the process, she cited scary-sounding figures from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a pro-deficit-slashing organization that started life out as a tobacco industry front and later pushed for the Social Security–cutting Simpson-Bowles Commission (Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairs of the commission, conveniently sit on the committee’s board). As a number of commentators pointed out, both of Quijano’s questions were based on shaky or, in the case of Social Security, false premises.
The spectacle of journalists employed by multi-million dollar corporations using the presidential debate stage to push for deficit-hawk policies is nothing new. In fact, over their forty-year history, the presidential debates have consistently served as a platform from which panelists and moderators have, like Quijano, either subtly attempted to prod candidates to the right on government spending, or fearmongered about supposed runaway debt and “entitlements.”
This trend was first kicked off during the one and only debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. William Hilliard, then the assistant managing editor of the Portland Oregonian, put to Reagan that “wage earners in this country — especially the young — are supporting a Social Security system that continues to affect their income drastically” and was “fostering a struggle between the young and the old, and is drifting the country toward a polarization of these two groups.” “How much longer can the young wage earner expect to bear the ever-increasing burden of the Social Security system?” he asked.
It’s not clear what Hilliard’s assertion that Social Security was responsible for some kind of generational war were based on. Regardless, his absurdly loaded question gave the famously antigovernment Reagan — who favored a voluntary Social Security system — the opening to go on a tear against the program, charging it was “based on a false premise” and was “trillions of dollars out of balance,” a patently false claim that neither Carter nor the panelists bothered to fact-check him on.
Reagan went on to dismiss one proposed solution to the problem, increasing the payroll tax, by saying it would “only put a band-aid on this and postpone the day of reckoning by a few years at most.” Three years later, Reagan and a Democrat-dominated Congress passed a bill that did just that (among other tweaks), and contrary to Reagan’s warnings, Social Security has run a surplus every year since.
While moderators and panelists before and since asked questions revolving around the deficit, they were typically framed around the candidates’ own campaign promises. Both Carter and Reagan, for instance, had received questions challenging them on their claims to have a plan to balance the budget not squaring with their actual policies. Hilliard’s question, however, set the collapse of Social Security and the supposed “polarization” it created as an objective fact.
Four years later, deficit-cutting was placed front and center in the debates by the panelists. Despite the fact that Democrat Walter Mondale had made spending cuts the centerpiece of his campaign, earning a “badge of political courage” from the New York Times, it was not enough for James Wieghart of the Scripps-Howard News Service. Wieghart charged that Mondale’s program would still leave an “enormous deficit” of $87 billion and asked him what further steps he would take to cut it. (For some perspective, no president ended up running a deficit of less than $200 billion until 1996).
When Mondale replied with a standard deficit-bashing answer, Wieghard pressed again. “One other way to attack the deficit is further reductions in spending,” he said, citing the fact that the Democrat-controlled House had rejected Reagan’s proposals to curb spending. “Isn’t it one aspect of leadership for prominent Democrats such as yourself to encourage responsible reductions in spending, and thereby reduce the deficit?”
But part of the reason Democrats had stood against Reagan’s proposals was because they had targeted the social programs Reagan so hated, even as he had dramatically slashed tax rates for high-income earners and spent profligate amounts on the military. In other words, the “responsible” sacrifices being demanded by pundits like Weighard were only to be made by the working class.
This trend continued in 1988. While the first Dukakis-Bush debate featured numerous welcome questions about poverty — the last time the topic would be extensively covered in a presidential debate — panelist John Mashek tried to pin the candidates down on doing something about the “troublesome issue” of the “bulging federal deficit.”
He asked Dukakis for three programs he would cut and, noting Bush’s proposal of new spending programs and aversion to tax cuts, asked Bush: “Is the deficit no longer really a concern of yours, the Republican Party, or the taxpayers?”
Social Security once more floated into the crosshairs of the panelists that year. The conservative Chicago Tribune’s John Margolis brought the issue up in the vice presidential debate, first accusing Dukakis’s running mate Lloyd Bentsen of “not dealing with it responsibly” by going back on his earlier support for Social Security cuts, then asking him to list programs he would eliminate to cut the deficit by $50 billion. He preceded this second question with frustration that “everybody in politics [is] afraid even to mention taxes, more social security cuts.”
Likewise, ABC News’s Ann Compton brought up “entitlements” like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and pensions, saying: “the government just can’t continue to pay for all of those programs.” “Before the election, would you commit yourself to . . . which one of those entitlements have to be redrawn?” Perhaps knowing the political fallout that would ensue, neither did.
In fact, to his credit, Dukakis went on to state:
I just don’t believe the place you go first is those programs, those so-called entitlements, which provide a basic floor of income and a modest amount of medical care for the elderly, the disabled, for people who can’t make their way on their own, and in many cases have given a great deal to this country.
The moderators weren’t always the ones to bring up the issue. In the first ever town hall debate in 1992, one audience member asked Clinton to “define in specific dollar goals how much you would reduce the deficit” each year of his administration and to “enter into a legally binding contract with the American people that if you did not achieve those goals that you would not seek a second term.”
Another, who worked in the “financial field,” warned of the impending bankruptcy of both Social Security and Medicare — the latter as early as 1997 — and asked the candidates what they would do about it. As in previous debates, these claims were vastly overstated.
In the first debate of 2000, it was Gore, who — following the Clinton administration’s eight-year binge on triangulation — brought up, apropos of nothing, his desire to “go to the next stage of welfare reform.”
In a question about Gore’s recent criticism of Bush’s experience to be president, Gore, with no push from the moderator, went on to stress that he had “fought hard from my days in the Senate and as vice president to cut the welfare rolls . . . But now it’s time for the next stage of welfare reform, and include fathers and not only mothers.”
For the most part, however, this period produced few questions about cutting social programs and the deficit. Given that the United States was running surpluses during the Clinton years and cutting social programs like welfare to the bone, there perhaps wasn’t much occasion to.
By 2004, however, the combination of Bush’s tax cuts and reckless wars had put the United States back in the red in a big way, producing deficits of more than $400 billion in 2003 and 2004 and increasing the national debt by nearly $2 trillion. Perhaps this is what led CBS anchor Bob Schieffer to drop this question at Bush’s feet in the final debate:
We all know that Social Security is running out of money, and it has to be fixed. Where do you get the money? Are you going to have to increase the deficit?
Not everybody “knew” that Social Security was running out of money. The system’s trustees certainly didn’t, as that very year they had reported the fund would stay solvent until 2042. Bush took Schieffer’s bait and affirmed that “there is a problem for our youngsters” and that “if we don’t act today, the problem will be valued in the trillions,” before moving on to trying to sell his unpopular plan to privatize Social Security.
When Kerry criticized Bush’s privatization scheme and promised to neither privatize Social Security nor cut its benefits, Schieffer pushed back, citing then Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s claim that “there’s no way that Social Security can pay retirees” without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age. “Does that mean you’re just going to leave this as a problem, another problem of our children to solve?” he asked.
What Schieffer didn’t mention was that Greenspan was a hard-right former disciple of Ayn Rand, and was also a reliable proponent of deregulation — one whose belief in the ability of the free market to take care of itself ultimately helped lead to the 2008 crash.
Nevertheless, as in the Reagan years, despite the fact that the United States’s enormous debt had nothing to do with social spending and everything to do with tax cuts for the wealthy and military largesse, social programs became the moderators’ preferred punching bag in the next two election years.
In the second debate of 2008, Tom Brokaw took a question from a viewer about the “huge unfunded obligations for . . . entitlement programs that will soon eat up all of the revenue that’s in place.” Making it clear this was a view to which he subscribed, Brokaw added of his own volition: “in a bipartisan way, everyone agrees, that’s a big ticking time bomb that will eat us up maybe even more than the mortgage crisis.”
Obama’s reply? “Well, Tom, we’re going to have to take on entitlements and I think we’ve got to do it quickly.”
Just in case anyone had been worried Obama was simply paying lip service to deficit hawkishness, over the next four years he attempted to do just that, repeatedly trying to come to a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans over the deficit and, unsuccessfully, trying to pass the measures recommended by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which included cutting Social Security while bringing down corporate tax rates.
This sentiment was stronger than ever in 2012, when hysteria over the deficit had reached a fever pitch. Although the deficit was, in theory, only one of three topics in the first debate of 2012, in practice it took up around a third of the proceedings, according it a similar status to the financial crisis in the 2008 debates, an actual crisis that needed to be urgently dealt with.
This doesn’t include the time spent on “entitlements,” in moderator Jim Lehrer’s words, although it did give Obama the chance to mount an articulate defense of social programs, which included this passage:
. . . when I think about what’s called entitlements. You know, the name itself implies some sense of dependency on the part of these folks. These are folks who’ve worked hard, like my grandmother, and there are millions of people out there who are counting on this.
That year’s vice presidential debate took this to even more cartoonish extremes, with ABC News’s Martha Raddatz at the helm. Raddatz has received praise from many quarters for her performance in the second debate of 2016, where, when not trying to push the candidates into joining the war in Syria, she tried to hold Donald Trump to account for his dodging of questions. Four years ago, she was just as hawkish on both national security and the deficit.
“Let’s talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process,” she said, framing a question about whether benefits would have to change for the programs to survive.
“Absolutely,” answered Ayn Rand-worshipping GOP candidate (and current Trump frenemy) Paul Ryan. “Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts,” he said.
Raddatz went on to ask Biden why he wouldn’t simply raise the Medicare eligibility age “if it could help solve the problem,” as well as what he would do beyond raising taxes for the wealthy to reduce the long-term deficit.
In the eyes of establishment journalists, not all spending is created equal, however. Raddaz’s view of the military budget as an untouchable necessity was betrayed by an offhand comment she made as Ryan brought up the issue of the looming “sequester,” which would have made $500 billion of automatic cuts in defense spending if Congress failed to agree to a budget.
“Let’s put the automatic defense cuts aside, OK?” she said, chiding Ryan for trying to pin the cuts on the Obama administration. “Let’s put those aside. No one wants that.” While the automatic cuts were certainly a poor and inexact way to trim military spending, in the context of the whole of the debate, the message delivered was this: “no one” may have wanted to touch the bloated defense budget, but both parties needed to start thinking of ways to rein in the social spending that was supposedly bringing the United States to financial ruin.
It’s notable that, barring a few exceptions, virtually all of these questions about the deficit and doomsday prognostications regarding social programs have come from the moderators themselves rather than town-hall attendees or average Americans chiming in through social media. That might be because the vast majority of Americans view these programs positively and actually want them strengthened, not weakened.
The effect of this incessant talk about debt by pundits and politicians has consequences. By 2013, Gallup found that 20 percent of Americans viewed the deficit as the most important issue facing the United States, only one percentage point less than the “economy in general,” the highest-ranked issue. It helped knock unemployment from the top two for the first time in four years.
By September 2016, however, with the public perhaps realizing that deficit alarmists had cried wolf one too many times in 2012, this had changed. Despite the fact that the government continued to run up huge deficits, only 3 percent of Americans viewed the federal debt as the most important problem, far behind the 11 and 14 percent who viewed unemployment and the economy in general as the most pressing issues.
Aside from Quijano’s questions at the vice presidential debate, neither the deficit nor “entitlement”-bashing has been a theme in this year’s debates, likely because other issues — immigration, misogyny, trade, foreign policy — have eclipsed it as media obsessions. But having been announced as a topic for the final debate, and with a Fox anchor asking the questions, don’t be surprised to hear the same fearmongering as previous years pop up — and don’t forget to treat it with the same skepticism it’s deserved over the last forty years.