McCain vs. Accuracy, Round 17

McCain questions Social Security's central premise, media doesn't notice

Amid all the misplaced hand-wringing over whether Barack Obama has changed his position on Iraq (he hasn’t, though both candidates have shifted their emphasis in response to changing facts on the ground), the mainstream media has completely ignored an actual instance of a candidate changing his stance on a major issue.

On Monday, John McCain, in a question-and-answer session with voters, seemed to question the entire premise of Social Security as we understand it. He said:

Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that’s a disgrace. It’s an absolute disgrace, and it’s got to be fixed.

By any standard, this statement ought to make news. The funding mechanism to which McCain objects—“paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers”—constitutes the basic principle of the Social Security program since its inception. If McCain truly believes that this funding mechanism is a “disgrace” that must “be fixed”, then he is, in effect, advocating dismantling Social Security as we know it. That’s a change from the position on his Web site, which says only that he supports “supplementing the current Social Security system with personal accounts.”

It’s possible McCain meant to say that Social Security revenues ought to mature before they are paid out. But such a reading still speaks to an unfamiliarity with the facts on McCain’s part. “It’s a very curious line from Senator McCain. I’m not sure what he thinks is disgraceful,” says Richard L. Kaplan, a University of Illinois law professor and an expert on elder law. “It’s really misleading to say that retirees are [directly] being paid from the pockets of new workers…. If he’s implying that the money is going directly to the old people, then he’s implying that there’s nothing in the trust fund, which is flat-out wrong.”

Two days later, McCain’s remarkable statement has gone virtually unnoticed. The Washington Post covered the broader Social Security issue yesterday with a piece headlined, absurdly, “Candidates Diverge on How to Save Social Security,” but mentioned McCain’s “disgrace” comment only when a reader brought it up in an online chat with political reporter Dan Balz. (Balz replied that McCain probably meant only that the system is out of balance because there are fewer workers paying the cost of retirement for more retirees—which is not at all what McCain said.)

At The New York Times, only Paul Krugman has noted McCain’s remarks, in a blog post. And, as far as we’ve seen, the cable news outlets haven’t mentioned it at all.

In truth, it’s unclear whether McCain intended this as a formal shift in position, or whether he simply, um, doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to Social Security. Either way, you’d think that would be news. Not to the people who run today’s campaign coverage, I guess.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.