Earlier this week, Bernie Sanders’s senior campaign adviser David Sirota sent an email to Sanders supporters drawing attention to a speech in which Joe Biden spoke favorably of cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
“Paul Ryan was correct when he did the tax code,” Biden said in 2018. “What’s the first thing he decided we had to go after? Social Security and Medicare. We need to do something about Social Security and Medicare. That’s the only way you can find room to pay for it.”
The fact-checking website PolitiFact took issue with Sirota’s interpretation of these remarks. PolitiFact insisted that Biden was being sarcastic, as apparently evidenced by the fact that he leaned forward and whispered the last bit.
But as the Intercept’s Ryan Grim pointed out, Biden does that whispering thing a lot. He usually does it when he’s “speaking forbidden, politically incorrect truths to the Left,” not when he’s being sarcastic. Furthermore, Grim observed that later in the same speech Biden says that Medicare and Social Security “can stay, it still needs adjustments, but can stay” — adjustments being DC-speak for cuts.
Grim’s points are well taken. But we don’t need to perform an exegesis on a single recent speech in order to nail down what Joe Biden thinks about Social Security and Medicare. He’s been in the public eye for a long time, and spent most of it proudly identifying as a Third Way Democrat, a political current that has boldly pursued austere cuts to social programs while authorizing tax breaks to the wealthy.
So why don’t we just take a look at Biden’s record?
Joe Biden vs. “Those Sacred Cows”
When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the Government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time. Somebody has to tell me in here how we are going to do this hard work without dealing with any of those sacred cows.
After being taken to task by PolitiFact, Sirota unearthed and circulated yet another video in which Biden says to the Senate, “I tried with Senator Grassley back in the eighties to freeze all government spending, including Social Security, including everything.”
Biden was telling the truth about his own record. In 1984, he teamed up with two Republican Senators to put a freeze on Social Security spending, which specifically would have eliminated scheduled cost-of-living increase for seniors enrolled in the program. That is by definition a cut to the program. “While this program is severe, it is the only proposal that will halt the upward spiral of deficits,” he said at the time.
In the eighties Joe Biden also called to raise the retirement age, a proposed cut to Social Security and Medicare alike. And if you thought that was just youthful folly, think again. In 1995, Biden voted again for a balanced-budget amendment that took special aim at Social Security, citing concerns about “continued spending” for his decision.
Nor did those attitudes stay behind in the twentieth century. When Biden ran for office in 2007–8, he again proposed raising the retirement age. When asked whether he would consider cuts to Social Security and Medicare he responded, “The answer is absolutely … you’ve got to put all of it on the table.”
When Joe Biden became vice president under Barack Obama, he was unsurprisingly keen to do just that. Throughout his tenure Biden routinely “displayed his friendliness to GOP entitlement hawks,” writes Branko Marketic in In These Times. Marketic recounts how Biden appointed a proponent of Social Security privatization to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility. “The Simpson-Bowles Commission, as it came to be known, recommended cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”
Biden then took the lead on tax policy negotiations where, Marketic writes, his “eagerness to cut a deal with the Republicans sometimes elicited outrage from his fellow Democrats, who felt he was giving too much away.” Again, Biden repeatedly placed Medicare and Social Security in the crosshairs in these negotiations.
Biden then went on to lead debt negotiations, Marketic writes, proposing “$2 trillion in cuts to general spending, federal retirement funds, Medicare and Medicaid … At one point, Biden suddenly called for $200 billion more in cuts that had never been discussed.”
The deal was eventually scuttled, but Biden had proven himself willing to give it all away, and then some.
Bernie Sanders: Defend and Expand
In the end, it’s not necessary to attempt to read between the lines to figure out whether Joe Biden believes we ought to cut Social Security and Medicare. Joe Biden has already tried to cut Social Security and Medicare. Multiple times. Case closed.
Contrast that to Bernie Sanders, who presently stands as Biden’s primary competition in the contest for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In 2011, Sanders filibustered the bill that resulted from Biden’s negotiations with top Republicans. He stood on his feet and spoke against the bill for eight hours, devoting a great deal of that time to condemning the legislation’s compromises on Medicare and Social Security — and reprimanding the Obama administration for caving on those programs.
“We should understand this agreement is just the beginning of an assault on legislation and programs that have benefited the American people for seventy or eighty years,” Sanders said. “Mark my words, there will be an intensive effort to privatize Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid,” he added, implicating both Democrats and Republicans and noting that he intended not only to push back against that assault but to fight to expand those programs.
Bernie Sanders’s record on Social Security and Medicare is as crystal clear as Joe Biden’s. He founded the Defend Social Security Caucus in 2011, and then co-founded the Expand Social Security Caucus in 2018, in order to “lead the fight against Republicans, and some Democrats, who wanted to cut this program,” as he put it. He has a similarly sterling history of fighting to safeguard Medicare from bipartisan attempts to cut and privatize it.
And Sanders doesn’t just want to protect these programs — he also wants to expand them. In 2018, when Biden was un-sarcastically praising Paul Ryan, Sanders wrote an op-ed titled “Donald Trump and GOP want to cut Social Security. We should expand it instead.” It’s one of the main planks in his campaign platform. As for Medicare, Sanders wants to improve it and give it to everyone (hence the slogan Medicare for All), and has been saying so for decades.
Ultimately, Sanders’s approach to Social Security and Medicare are the opposite of Biden’s handwringing about the deficit and talk about “tough, bipartisan” reform to social programs. Sanders believes these programs are vital and successful, that they are markers of a compassionate society, that they are a boon to rather than a drain on the economy, and that they should be fortified rather than undermined.
As PolitiFact noted, Biden made a vague promise on the 2020 campaign trail to “prevent cuts to American retirees.” But given the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, it’s not clear why we would believe him. We have every reason to believe Bernie Sanders, though. His record is thoroughly consistent, and his commitments are plain as day.
In the end, the truth is glaringly obvious: Social Security and Medicare are not safe in Joe’s hands, but they are in Bernie’s.