On Monday, at a town hall meeting in Denver, John McCain said this:
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.
In this quote, McCain was essentially saying that the problem with Social Security is that Social Security is Social Security, instead of something else. He is attacking the basic funding mechanism for the 75-year-old program. But now, with the McCain "disgrace" comment being picked up all over the web, the McCain campaign is trying to backtrack. ABC's Jake Tapper spoke with a McCain spokesman, Brian Rogers, who said this:
[T]he disgrace is our failure to fix the long-run imbalance in Social Security—a failure of leadership evidenced by our willingness to kick to problem to the next generation of leaders. He's also describing the looming and increasing demographic pressures confronting the Social Security system and Washington's utter failure to address it.
In essence, Rogers is claiming that McCain's "disgrace" comment was taken out of context—that he was not applying the word "disgrace" to Social Security's funding mechanism, but rather to the "demographic pressures confronting the Social Security system and Washington's utter failure to address it."
Unfortunately for the McCain campaign, which is beginning to realize the mistake it made by attacking Social Security, Rogers' argument doesn't hold up under scrutiny. The Denver town hall wasn't the only place McCain attacked Social Security this week. From yesterday's post:
Now, before you think, "Wow, that must be a slip of the tongue, he can't possibly mean that," please note that McCain said essentially the same thing to John Roberts on CNN this morning. From the transcript:
On the privatization of accounts, which you just mentioned, I would like to respond to that. I want young workers to be able to, if they choose, to take part of their own money which is their taxes and put it in an account which has their name on it. Now, that's a voluntary thing, it's for younger people, it would not affect any present-day retirees or the system as necessary. So let's describe it for what it is. They pay their taxes and right now their taxes are going to pay the retirement of present-day retirees. That's why it's broken, that's why we can fix it. [Emphasis added.]
McCain said the same thing on CNN that he did in the town hall: the problem with Social Security—"why it's broken"—is that young people, "pay their taxes and right now their taxes are going to pay the retirement of present-day retirees." That's not out of context. It's what he said. McCain's problem with Social Security is with its basic structure.
The DNC held a conference call today about McCain's comment. It seems smart to pick up on this—it's the real thing. With this comment showing his antipathy toward the fundamentals of Social Security, McCain has indeed touched the "third rail" of American politics. On the DNC call, Ed Coyle, the president of the Alliance for Retired Americans, referred to McCain's comment as "anti-senior" and said he hopes the press will ask McCain to elaborate on what he could have meant. That's a reasonable request.