During a debate dominated by the ongoing coronavirus crisis, it was the exchange on Social Security that perhaps got the most heated.
“Why don’t you just tell the truth here?” Sen. Bernie Sanders said at one point.
“Oh come, on Bernie,” former Vice President Joe Biden later shot back.
The flash point was over a series of clips that each campaign is circulating to try and tell a different story about Biden’s record on the issue.
“America, go to the website right now,” said Sanders. “Go to the YouTube right now.”
The back and forth comes just ahead of a vote in Florida and other states where Social Security is sure to be an important issue. If Biden’s overwhelming lead in the state holds, he is likely to entrench his status as the overwhelming favorite to become the Democratic nominee.
For Sanders, it’s one of his last hopes to turn the tables. “We expect that it will be a powerful issue in the states ahead,” senior Sanders advisor David Sirota said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance.
Here’s a rundown of the clips at issue and some of the truth behind them.
‘I meant Social Security’
Since announcing his candidacy, Biden has consistently promised to raise Social Security benefits. Yet there is truth to Sanders’ charge that in the past he has put Social Security cuts “on the table.”
The Sanders campaign has focused a lot of energy on making sure voters see a clip – which it cut into a TV ad – of Biden from a speech from 1995 discussing freezing spending on programs like Social Security. Biden’s campaign responded to the ad with its own spot saying Biden has always supported Social Security.
The Sanders campaign has also distributed a clip of Biden in 2007 agreeing “absolutely” that Social Security should be on the table.
“What is true is, in terms of the negotiations that are taking place, how to deal with the deficit, everything was on the table,” said Biden on Sunday night, adding that now “I did not support any of those cuts, in Social Security or in veterans’ benefits.”
Fact checkers do agree that over the years “Biden spoke in favor of freezes to Social Security as part of an effort to rein in all spending.” (A freeze in Social Security benefits would give the program’s recipients less buying power each year because of inflation.)
The larger Sanders charge is that Biden has “advocated cutting Social Security for 40 years.” Fact checkers have pushed back on that claim noting that Biden’s record is more nuanced than that. Biden’s record as a senator contains examples: In addition to the clips above, he also co-sponsored a bill in the 1970s to increase monthly Social Security benefits by 7%.
‘With regards to Social Security…we will not privatize it’
The Biden campaign has responded by pointing voters to this clip.
The exchange, from the 2012 campaign, was over Republican plans to privatize Social Security. “Go to joebiden.com, look at my exchange with Paul Ryan on his desire to try to privatize and/or cut Social Security,” Biden said on Sunday night.
That debate between the Biden and Former Speaker Ryan has been a flash point between the campaigns for weeks. Sirota misleadingly quoted remarks from 2018 from the Vice President in his campaign newsletter to make it seem like Biden had endorsed Paul Ryan’s cuts. He did not. Video shows he was actually mocking the idea that cuts are the only way to address Social Security’s problems.
A muddled debate from both sides
Even Sanders has quotes from his distant past that could be used against him. As CNN’s Dana Bash noted to Sanders during Sunday’s debate: “you wrote an op-ed that said, quote, ‘It is clear we will have to make incremental adjustments in Social Security taxes and benefits.’”
As Floridians (as well as voters in Arizona, Illinois, and Ohio) weigh Social Security against the range of other issues they’re considering, one thing does remain clear. Both Biden and Sanders have consistently talked about raising Social Security benefits at least during the 2020 campaign.
The next president will confront a range of challenges to the retirement system: the Social Security Trust Fund could begin to run short of money (and face benefit cuts) in the coming years with no action.
Sanders has the more ambitious plan. He wrote a bill that would increase benefits across the board, including by $1,300 a year for low-income seniors.
Biden has shied away from across-the-board hikes, but said he would implement targeted benefit increases. He has also voiced support for increases in survivor benefits. The former VP also suggests targeted benefit increases for the the oldest Americans and a minimum benefit for workers who spent at least 30 years paying into the system.
Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.
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