Russert misrepresented debate exchanges on Social Security to accuse Clinton of having "one public position and one private position"

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

During the Democrats' October 30 debate in Philadelphia, moderator Tim Russert misrepresented prior exchanges Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had with moderator Judy Woodruff at a September 20 forum in Iowa and with Russert himself at a September 26 debate in New Hampshire and went on to accuse Clinton of having "one public position and one private position" on the issue of raising the cap on income on which Social Security taxes must be paid. Under current law, Social Security taxes are not paid on income above $97,500.

In one of several exchanges for which Russert was characterized by the New York Times in an October 31 article as "arguably" Clinton's "third toughest opponent on the stage" during the October 30 debate, Russert said the following:

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I want to clear something up which goes to the issue of credibility. You were asked at the AARP debate whether or not you would consider taxing, lifting the cap from $97,500, taxing that, raising more money for Social Security. You said, quote, "It's a no." I asked you the same question in New Hampshire, and you said "no." Then you went to Iowa and you went up to Tod Bowman , a teacher, and had a conversation with him saying, "I would consider lifting the cap perhaps above $200,000." You were overheard by an Associated Press reporter saying that. Why do you have one public position and one private position?

But Russert's accounts of both the AARP and New Hampshire exchanges are misleading.

In the first -- at the September 20 AARP forum -- the exchange went as follows:

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC): I just want to follow up on one thing that Senator Biden said just a minute ago, but he mentioned it briefly in passing. There is something we can do to generate more revenue for Social Security. Today, for those in the audience who may not be aware of this -- and I suspect most of them are -- it caps out at about $97,000. In other words, if you make $80,000 a year, you're paying Social Security taxes on every dime of your income. If you work on Wall Street and you make $50 million a year, you pay Social Security tax on the first $97,000, no Social Security tax on the rest of it. This is not right, and it's not fair, and what we need to do, in my judgment --

[applause]

I don't -- to the point that Bill just made, I do think we need to have a bubble above that 97 -- probably up to about $200,000 so we don't raise taxes on middle class families. But above the $200,000, these millionaires on Wall Street ought to be paying their Social Security taxes.

JUDY WOODRUFF (moderator): Everybody here agree with that? Everybody here agree with that? OK. Senator Clinton, agree?

CLINTON: I want to focus on the fiscal responsibility piece of this.

WOODRUFF: All right.

CLINTON: Before we do anything else, we need to get back to what was working, and I'd like to see us do that. And we should make people pay their fair share, but we have a lot of work to do in Washington to clean up the fiscal mess we're going to inherit from President Bush.

EDWARDS: So was that no?

WOODRUFF: I think that's a no. Is that correct? [Clinton nods affirmatively.] It's a no.

Contrary to Russert's assertion, Woodruff did not ask "whether or not you would consider ... lifting the cap from $97,500." Her question was far more general -- "Everybody here agree with that? ... Senator Clinton, agree?" Moreover, Clinton did not say, as Russert claimed, "it's a no." Woodruff did, apparently in response to Clinton's nod.

In the second exchange -- at the September 26 New Hampshire debate -- Russert asked, "Senator Clinton, would you be in favor of saying to the American people, 'I'm going to tax your income. I'm not going to cap at $97,500. Everyone, even if you're a millionaire, is going to pay Social Security tax on every cent they make?" Clinton responded by talking about "fiscal responsibility." The exchange continued as follows:

RUSSERT: But you would not take lifting the cap at 97.5 off the table.

CLINTON: Well, I take everything off the table until we move toward fiscal responsibility and before we have a bipartisan process. I don't think I should be negotiating about what I would do as president. You know, I want to see what other people come to the table with.

RUSSERT: But Senator Biden said you can't grow your way out of this. And for the record, when the Clinton administration left office, Social Security was only guaranteed to 2038, not 2055.

CLINTON: There was a plan, on the basis of the balanced budget and the surplus, to take it all the way to 2055.

RUSSERT: A plan --

CLINTON: And we know what happened. George Bush came in, went back to deficits, and has basically used the Social Security trust fund and borrowing from China --

RUSSERT: But Senator --

CLINTON: -- and other countries to pay for the war.

RUSSERT: -- a simple question. A simple question. What do you put on the table? What are you willing to look at to say, "We're not going to double the taxes, we're not going to cut benefits in half; I'm willing to put everything on the table, some things on the table, nothing on the table"?

CLINTON: I'm not putting anything on the proverbial table until we move toward fiscal responsibility. I think it's a mistake to do that.

Russert did not ask "the same question" as Woodruff, and did not ask if she would "consider" lifting the income cap. He asked first if she would "be in favor" of lifting the cap, and then if she was putting it on or taking it off "the table." Contrary to Russert's assertion, Clinton did not say "no." She talked again, as she did in Iowa, about fiscal responsibility, and she talked about the need to establish a "bipartisan process" before anything was on or off "the proverbial table."

Excerpts in relevant part provided below.

From the October 30 Democratic debate in Philadelphia:

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I want to clear something up which goes to the issue of credibility. You were asked at the AARP debate whether or not you would consider taxing, lifting the cap from $97,500, taxing that, raising more money for Social Security. You said, quote, "It's a no." I asked you the same question in New Hampshire, and you said "no."

Then you went to Iowa and you went up to Tod Bowman, a teacher, and had a conversation with him saying, "I would consider lifting the cap perhaps above $200,000." You were overheard by an Associated Press reporter saying that. Why do you have one public position and one private position?

CLINTON: Well, Tim, I don't. I have said consistently that my plan for Social Security is fiscal responsibility first, then to deal with any long-term challenges which I agree are ones that we are going to have to address. We would have a bipartisan commission. In the context of that, I think all of these would be considered. But, personally, I do not want to balance Social Security on the backs of our seniors and middle-class families. That's why I put fiscal responsibility first, because we have to change the Bush tax cuts, which I am committed to doing. We have to move back toward a more fair and progressive tax system, and begin once again to move toward a balanced budget with a surplus. You know, part of the idea in the '90s was not just so Bill would have a check mark next to his name in history, but so that we would have the resources to deal with a lot of these entitlement problems. George Bush understood that. The Republicans understood that. They wanted to decimate that balanced budget and a surplus because they knew that that would give them a free hand to try to privatize Social Security. I am not going to be repeating Republican talking points. So when somebody asks me, would something like this be considered, well, anything could be considered when we get to a bipartisan commission. But personally, I am not going to be advocating any specific fix until I am seriously approaching fiscal responsibility.

RUSSERT: But you did raise it as a possibility with Tod Bowman?

CLINTON: Well, but everybody knows what the possibilities are, Tim. Everybody knows that. But I do not advocate it. I do not support it. I have laid out what I do believe, and I am going to continue to emphasize that. I think, for us to act like Social Security is in crisis is a Republican trap. We're playing on the Republican field. And I don't intend to do that.

From the September 26 Democratic debate in New Hampshire:

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, would you be in favor of saying to the American people, "I'm going to tax your income. I'm not going to cap at $97,500. Everyone, even if you're a millionaire, is going to pay Social Security tax on every cent they make"?

CLINTON: Well, Tim, let me tell you what I think about this because I know this is a particular concern of yours, but I want to make three points very briefly.

First, I do think that it's important to talk about fiscal responsibility. You know, when my husband left office after moving us toward a balanced budget and a surplus, we had a plan to make Social Security solvent until 2055. Now, because of the return to deficits, we've lost 14 years of solvency. It's now projected to be solvent until 2041. Getting back on a path of fiscal responsibility is absolutely essential.

Number two, I think we do need another bipartisan process. You described what happened in '83. It took presidential leadership, and it took the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill to reach the kind of resolution that was discussed.

And I think that has to be what happens again, but with a president who is dedicated to Social Security, unlike our current president, who has never liked Social Security. You can go back and see when he first ran for Congress he was dissing Social Security. So when I'm president, I will do everything to protect and preserve Social Security so we can have that kind of bipartisanship.

And finally, then you can look in the context of fiscal responsibility and of a bipartisan compromise what else might be done. But I think if you don't put fiscal responsibility first, you're going to really make a big mistake, because we demonstrated in the '90s it had a lot to do with moving us toward solvency.

RUSSERT: But you would not take lifting the cap at 97.5 off the table.

CLINTON: Well, I take everything off the table until we move toward fiscal responsibility and before we have a bipartisan process. I don't think I should be negotiating about what I would do as president. You know, I want to see what other people come to the table with.

RUSSERT: But Senator Biden said you can't grow your way out of this. And for the record, when the Clinton administration left office, Social Security was only guaranteed to 2038, not 2055.

CLINTON: There was a plan, on the basis of the balanced budget and the surplus, to take it all the way to 2055.

RUSSERT: A plan -

CLINTON: And we know what happened. George Bush came in, went back to deficits, and has basically used the Social Security trust fund and borrowing from China -

RUSSERT: But Senator -

CLINTON: -- and other countries to pay for the war.

RUSSERT: -- a simple question. A simple question. What do you put on the table? What are you willing to look at to say, "We're not going to double the taxes, we're not going to cut benefits in half; I'm willing to put everything on the table, some things on the table, nothing on the table"?

CLINTON: I'm not putting anything on the proverbial table until we move toward fiscal responsibility. I think it's a mistake to do that.

From the September 20 AARP forum (full transcript on Iowa Public Television site):

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): Yes, she is right about it, but there's one other thing. Look, let's just put something in perspective. Right now Social Security tax is up to $97,500. I think that's the number. If you raise it to $118,000 subject to the tax, you increase its life expectancy another 40 years. This is not a tough problem, folks. This is not real hard. But in addition to -- what Hillary -- the point that Senator Clinton makes is fundamentally correct, not only about Social Security but about every other aspect of our fiscal problems, everything from Medicare straight through to our ability to pay for education, is impacted by the godawful deficit these guys have created. This president should be called Houdini. He went from a $5.8 trillion projected surplus to $3.7 trillion projected deficit. Only Houdini could that, or Bush.

[applause]

WOODRUFF: Senator Dodd, we're talking about what's on the table, what's off the table. What about raising the retirement age? We know that Americans live longer today, we're working longer, we're healthier longer. Is this something you could support?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D-CT): No, I wouldn't. I don't think that's needed at all here. I think that would be a mistake to move in that direction. Now, let me add to the points here again that's been made, and I think it needs to be reinforced over and over again. It's hard to imagine, but I want you to consider just this. It took the accumulation of 42 presidents to acquire the debt that one president has in six years. That's a stunning statistic when you think of it. Throughout the 230-year history of our country, all 42 of the predecessors of this president did not accumulate as much debt as he has in six years in this administration. We need to have some sound, sensible policies here regarding our fiscal picture in this country, regarding trade policies and job growth, economic growth in this country that has not been a part of this at all. We're giving away too much all over the world and here at home. And you don't need to do that much to fix Social Security. To me, by my colleagues here, this is absolutely the case. Again, this is the red herring. This is the crowd that's historically tried to undermine this valuable program that has been a safety net for millions of Americans.

WOODRUFF: Governor Richardson?

RICHARDSON: Look, I want to, again, differentiate myself with Joe because --

BIDEN: You're not going to make secretary of state.

[laughter]

RICHARDSON: You know, we don't need to deal with a retirement age. We don't need to deal with the cap. That's a 15 percent --

WOODRUFF: How do you pay for it?

RICHARDSON: Well, I'll tell you. You can't -- with a cap that's a 15 percent tax increase on family farms, on small business. This is what I would do. One, you take privatization off the table. Secondly, you get rid of dipping into the Social Security trust fund. The third that nobody's talked about is you grow the economy. I mean, the Social Security increase -- I've got this fly around me. The Social Security --

WOODRUFF: It's a Republican. It came in from Washington.

'

[laughter]

RICHARDSON: -- the Social Security system today is dependent on the growth of 1.3 percent by the year 2045. That is weak economic growth. We balance the budget. We invest in education. And lastly, I think we need to look at some positive alternatives, like creating universal pension that guarantees portability. That will deal with the problem.

WOODRUFF: Quickly on this, and then I have another question on the retirement age, so go ahead.

EDWARDS: I just want to follow up on one thing that Senator Biden said just a minute ago, but he mentioned it briefly in passing. There is something we can do to generate more revenue for Social Security. Today, for those in the audience who may not be aware of this -- and I suspect most of them are -- it caps out at about $97,000. In other words, if you make $80,000 a year, you're paying Social Security taxes on every dime of your income. If you work on Wall Street and you make $50 million a year, you pay Social Security tax on the first $97,000, no Social Security tax on the rest of it. This is not right, and it's not fair, and we need to do in my judgment --

[applause]

I don't -- to the point that Bill just made, I do think we need to have a bubble above that 97 -- probably up to about $200,000 so we don't raise taxes on middle-class families. But above the $200,000, these millionaires on Wall Street ought to be paying their Social Security taxes.

WOODRUFF: Everybody here agree with that? Everybody here agree with that? OK, Senator Clinton, agree?

CLINTON: I want to focus on the fiscal responsibility piece of this.

WOODRUFF: All right.

CLINTON: Before we do anything else, we need to get back to what was working, and I'd like to see us do that. And we should make people pay their fair share, but we have a lot of work to do in Washington to clean up the fiscal mess we're going to inherit from President Bush.

EDWARDS: So was that no?

WOODRUFF: I think that's a no. Is that correct? [Clinton nods affirmatively.] It's a no. I have a question about -- well, this is to all of you, but it's to Senator Dodd. Democrats, as we know, critical of President Bush's approach on Social Security. You heard the phrase over and over again, he always -- they would say the president says, "It's my way or the highway." But if you take benefit cuts, partial private accounts, if you take raising retirement age, all those things off the table, haven't you done the same thing as the president?

Posted In
Economy, Social Security
Person
Tim Russert
Stories/Interests
Hillary Clinton, 2008 Elections
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