campaign desk

Alan Simpson Does it Again

This time the press pays attention—sort of
August 26, 2010

Alan Simpson, the co-chair of the president’s deficit commission, came up with another doozy Monday when he told Ashley Carson, the director of the Older Women’s League and a strong supporter of Social Security, that “if you have some better suggestions about how to stabilize Social Security instead of just babbling into the vapors, let me know.” Simpson was responding to a piece Carson wrote in April on the Huffington Post calling his previous comments “some disgusting attempt at ageism and sexism.” In his e-mail to Carson, Simpson admitted:

Yes, I’ve made some plenty smart cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree. You know ‘em too. It’s the same with any system in America. We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits! Call when you get honest work.

Carson, I’m sure, believes she is doing honest work, helping middle-aged women and those in retirement find ways to keep afloat financially, even with Social Security. So it’s hardly surprising that Simpson’s remarks offended Carson and other women’s groups which have called for the former Wyoming senator’s resignation.

This is not the first time Simpson has disparaged Social Security. Campaign Desk has tracked his comments over the last six months, finding that, for the most part, the MSM have let them slide by. No protests of outrage. No calls for a resignation—even though, as Campaign Desk pointed out, journalists and politicians have lost their jobs for making similar remarks.

Shortly after his appointment to the commission, Simpson told the NewsHour that “this country is going to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security, and Medicare.” In March, he predicted on CNBC that his commission “will be a bloodbath. You’ve got to scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever.” In April, he appeared on Fox News, saying that most of the mail he gets comes from seniors who “live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount,” and are not affected “one whiff” by the changes he had in mind for Social Security. And in June, he told Alex Lawson of the advocacy group Social Security Works: “Where do you come up with all the crap you come up with. “We’re trying to take care of the lesser people in society.”

Yesterday was different. Several news outlets weighed in, framing their stories with Simpson’s apology to Carson or with the calls from liberal organizations for Simpson to resign. The stories were workmanlike enough, but most missed the crux of Simpson’s growing linguistic archive—in effect, dismissing what’s really at stake here. USA Today mentioned his “colorful description” of Social Security. Fox told viewers that the “feisty” Simpson was “known for blunt talk and confrontational, colorful language.” Reuters reported that Simpson, “known for his biting sense of humor,” had made an “off-color” remark. The Washington Post was slightly more specific, acknowledging that the “outspoken” Simpson was a “longtime critic of Social Security.”

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Simpson’s comments are more than just offensive to women’s groups. They get to the heart of the ideological battle surrounding Social Security that has periodically come and gone during its seventy-five year history. Simpson represents those who don’t like the program’s income redistribution and wish it would disappear. Those calling for his resignation represent Americans who desperately need Social Security, and believe it is the program’s social solidarity that has made it so successful. had a chance yesterday to make those points, but didn’t. Its story began with a herd-like lead—an advocacy group was calling for Simpson’s ouster. It talked about the spat between Carson and Simpson and then got to the he said/she said stuff, serving up a graph that said a coalition of groups had pledged “to fight any effort” to cut benefits or raise the retirement age, and another noting that “nonpartisan deficit experts say the debt trajectory for the country is so worrisome that nothing in the federal budget can be off the table.”

CNN forgot to connect the dots on this one, and it should have. It would have brought a dose of reality to Simpson’s latest remarks. What would happen to real people if the retirement age were raised to seventy? The week before, CNN Money ran some brief but interesting and revealing profiles of eight people who took their Social Security benefits early. Running through them was a common thread: many had no choice. They had lost their jobs, couldn’t find new ones, and needed the benefit, even a drastically reduced one, to live on. A sixty-two-year old woman said she and her husband had planned to wait until he turned seventy to collect benefits, “but I doubt we’ll make it.” A man and his wife who had white collar jobs in the auto industry hoped to take full benefits at age sixty-six; instead, they have to take them now to make ends meet. “It deeply saddens us to be in this position, but we have no choice,” they said.

It looks like Simpson is staying on the job. The White House said it was satisfied with the apology. But that still misses the point—Simpson’s long-standing antipathy toward Social Security and Medicare. All of which raises the question about why the president appointed him in the first place, something the media should have researched long ago. Retaining Simpson at the commission, loose tongue and all, is what the president apparently wants.

That in turn calls up another question. The AARP’s senior vice president, Drew Nannis, said Simpson’s remarks “undermine the serious work of the commission and give us little confidence the commission can fairly look at important programs such as Social Security.” On his blog, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that an apology was hardly the point: “When you have a commission dedicated to the common good, and the co-chair dismisses Social Security as a ‘milk cow with 310 million tits,’ you either have to get rid of him or admit that you’re completely, um, cowed by the right wing. Simpson was completely in character here; it was perfectly consistent with everything else he’s said.”

Simpson may stay on, and that means the press still has a chance to cover him more closely—and tell its audiences what’s really behind his “colorful language” and “off-color” remarks.

Click here for more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.