The Contrived Social Security Crisis is Back, and Jeb Bush Is Confused

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last summer, in a Dorf on Law post asking "Is the Attack on Social Security Finally Over?" I responded to my own question as follows:
"In short, there is no reason to think that there has been a fundamental reassessment by anyone who has been pushing a political agenda that will lead to a fake compromise to cut Social Security.  When the political moment is right, they will be back at it, on both sides of the political aisle, hacking away at the security of future middle class retirees."
Apparently, the moment is right again, or at least Jeb Bush thinks so.  On Wednesday of this week, I was asked for an interview on KCBS radio in the Bay Area, to discuss proposals to increase the Social Security retirement age.  The same day, a reporter for PolitiFact contacted me, asking if Bernie Sanders was right to describe Bush's proposal as a "benefit cut."  (Yes, Sanders was right.)

Why is this happening now?  My best guess is that Bush's people have decided that, with his extended non-candidacy finally set to transition into his actual (less lucrative) candidacy, they need to start putting some substance behind the claim that Bush has presidential gravitas.  And nothing so impresses the Washington press types as a proposal to do something faux-responsible about "entitlements."  This always means imposing cuts on middle class people (which must necessarily take effect rather far into the future, even though it is often sold to younger voters as somehow good for them), rather than collecting enough in taxes to make any future cuts unnecessary.  (To be clear, it is still not certain whether any additional revenues will ever actually be necessary.  But that isn't stopping people like Bush.)

Indeed, it is not merely the inside-the-Beltway media who buy into the hype about Social Security.  My experience over the years with interviewers on KCBS is that they are scrupulously nonpartisan and well informed, and that they actually make sure that their follow-up questions adjust to the previous answers.  In my first answer, I made sure to refer to increasing the retirement age as a "bad idea."  Pivoting skillfully, the interviewer immediately went to a wonky version of, "But isn't it going broke?"  I then explained the difference between the financial forecasts regarding Social Security and Medicare, and I finished by noting that the word "entitlement" is used to sweep Social Security into the Medicare/Medicaid financing debate, where it does not belong.

All of this led to my Verdict column today, in which I do two things: (1) I mock a fundamental factual error that Jeb Bush made regarding the Social Security retirement age, and (2) I describe why, on the merits, inreasing the Social Security retirement age is the worst of all possible ways to respond to any future financing issues that might arise.  Here, at the risk of seeming to make a bigger deal out of it than it will surely turn out to be, I want to add a few more thoughts about the Bush blunder.

The PolitiFact reporter had pointed me to the transcript of Bush's appearance on one of last Sunday's interview shows, in which Bush said that we should consider "going from 65 to 68 or 70" for the Social Security retirement age.  This immediately struck me as odd, because that retirement age has already been increased from 65 to 67, with the phase-in set such that everyone born in 1960 or later will be subject to the higher age to collect full Social Security benefits.  How did Bush not know this?

As I noted in the Verdict column, this is not a small error.  If you think that maybe 68 is the right retirement age, and you do not know that it is already 67, what are we to think?  Is there really something about that extra year that bothers him, or is he committed to a 3-to-5 year increase no matter what the starting point, or is he simply pulling numbers out of thin air (or from someplace where there is very little air at all)?  If the argument is that we should be responsive to increases in life expectancies, then certainly it matters quite a lot whether we are starting from 65 or 67 in deciding whether to change anything.  (As I argue in the column, the life expectancy argument is more than a tiny bit misleading, but I'll set that aside here.)

Remember, Bush is being promoted as the guy who is supposedly something of a nerd, a details guy, the opposite of his brother.  He gets into the weeds and thinks things through, or so his handlers would have us believe.  But, when he talks about changing the Social Security retirement age, he is off by two years (in a debate in which the entire range of motion is no more than five years).  And, in case anyone forgot, he was the governor for eight years of the State of Florida.  Florida!  For him not to know one of the key numbers related to a program that applies to retirees is almost awe-inspiring.  Heck, the retirement age that applies to Jeb Bush himself (born in 1953) is 66.

Now, surely I am making too much of this.  One reliable non-defense in any situation like this is to say that voters do not care, and that Bush will pay no political price for this.  "65, 66, 67, whatever.  Just fix it!"  This defense is the ultimate dodge for anyone in politics.  "Nobody will care about a traffic backup at the George Washington Bridge."  "Nobody will care that she didn't use the right email server."  "Nobody will care that he left his second wife when she was in the hospital dying of cancer."

Sometimes that is true, and sometimes it is not.  I am highly confident that Bush's poll numbers will not suffer from this specific error, where the actual significance of his being misinformed is obvious only in context, and only to a tiny number of people.  However, that is not the only way that a blunder can matter.  Again, Bush's brand is supposed to be that he is not his brother.  He is the one who actually cares about getting things right.  And that brand is being sold not to the voters, as an initial matter, but to the commentators and policy wonks who can (or cannot) be described as "taking this candidate seriously."

Those commentators and policy wonks are often gullible (see, for example, the continuing mystery of "Paul Ryan the ideas guy"), but the more Bush in reality diverges from Bush in theory, the more difficult it will be for opinion-makers to turn a blind eye.  As always, no single blunder of this sort will be big enough to turn the tide alone, but Bush's aura has already been taking something of a beating.  A few months ago, he defended the Indiana RFRA law, and then backed off the next day, looking like a panderer.  His comments about "if we knew what we know now about Iraq" were widely mocked.  At some point, the question is no longer, "Can he plausibly explain the new embarrassing comment?"  As with Rick Perry now, and Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin in their times, a narrative emerges, and even innocent things start to stick.

One possible defense, I suppose, is that the retirement age for Medicare (not Social Security) really is 65.  When Bush was answering a question about increasing the Social Security retirement age, maybe he became confused and instead was talking about Medicare.  If that were the argument, however, then he would really look foolish, because not being able to keep straight the difference between the nation's pension system and its health care system would seem to be a pretty big deal.  That really is Rick Perry territory.

Again, I am not arguing that Bush is definitely going to pay any price, even a small one, for this error.  But if a narrative starts to build, where people start to question his carefully constructed image as a serious, wonky guy who knows what he is talking about, making no-question-about-it errors like this one will start to take a toll.  And even if it does not, it worries me that the man who very well could be the next president is breezily selling himself as a policy nerd while having only a passing grasp of reality.