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Clinton Slips Social Security Questions

Clinton faced questions on social security while on the road in Iowa. (AP).

Tracking Hillary Clinton's views on Social Security is becoming a full-time job. Over the past two months, she has been tantalizingly explicit in her views, deliberately vague about what she thinks, publicly steadfast in saying she doesn't want to talk about specific ways to ensure solvency and privately willing to share her thoughts when the situation has suited her.

Thanks to an alert Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press, another piece of the puzzle fell into place recently -- although it has been largely ignored as the Democratic candidates have sparred over Iran and the political cognoscenti have been distracted by changes in the Republican race and debates over whether Clinton's lead in national polls truly reflects her strength in the Democratic race.

Pickler was at an event in Iowa recently when Tod Bowman, a teacher at Maquoketa Community High School, asked Clinton for more details about her position on Social Security. In the public forum she demurred, which she had begun to do earlier when pressed as to her positions. She said she preferred to put the federal government on a more disciplined budgetary footing as the first step to dealing with the Social Security's financial problems.

When the forum ended, according to Pickler, Bowman went up to Clinton to have his picture taken and asked her more about the future of Social Security. In that conversation, Clinton said she was open to asking workers to pay payroll taxes on more of their earnings, but wanted to protect middle-class workers at the same time.

The details of what she is talking about are strikingly similar to something John Edwards outlined during a Democratic debate in Iowa sponsored by the AARP, a proposal Clinton rejected at the time.

Currently, workers are taxed for Social Security purposes on the first $97,500 in earnings. All earnings above that are exempt from payroll taxes. Edwards said he would favor a measure that would require people who earn more than $200,000 annually to pay payroll taxes on any earnings above that level, but exempt that portion between $97,500 and $200,000 -- an innovative idea.

Clinton had to be pressed by moderator Judy Woodruff of PBS before she affirmatively rejected the idea -- only to suggest to Bowman that she is quite receptive to the idea, if not all the details.

In an interview with the Post recently, Clinton was asked specifically about the Edwards proposal and whether she thought it had merit, perhaps in altered form. She stepped back from that question to say that she did not think the Social Security system is in crisis, would appoint a bipartisan commission as president to make recommendations for a long-term fix, would not talk about specific ideas during the campaign and would resist doing so as president until the commission offered up its proposals.

A few days later, she shared with Bowman her thoughts about the Edwards idea. Her receptivity to subjecting more earnings to payroll taxes was not entirely a surprise. There have been hints from her camp that she was at least open to the kind of donut strategy Edwards had outlined, but with a different income level as a trigger for resuming payroll taxes.

That continued her twisting path that included a stop in Boston in early September in which she was quite explicit about what she would not accept as part of solution to fixing the government retirement program's long-term financial problems. At a forum there, she made a point of differentiating herself from rival Barack Obama, who had said earlier this year that everything should be on the table when it comes to dealing with the problem.

"Putting everything on the table is not the right answer," Clinton said, according to an AP account. "Raising the retirement age is not an answer. Cutting benefits is not an answer. We need to get back to the fiscal responsibility that we had in the 1990s, when we weren't draining the Social Security fund any more."

The AP story said that Clinton aides made clear to reporters that she was disagreeing with Obama.

More recently, she has tried to back away from those comments. Reminded during the Post interview of what she had said, she replied, "What I've said is I that would not advocate any of this. I'm not advocating any of it as a presidential candidate or as a president."

Nonetheless, her advisers are willing to say that she still opposes private or personal accounts as any part of a Social Security fix -- a position shared by all the Democratic candidates. Spokesman Phil Singer, in a message Wednesday, was emphatic about this idea: "Social Security privatization is a non-starter." he wrote. "Period."

He responded to a question about why Clinton was speaking privately with a voter about her ideas but not with the public at large by writing, "There are many ideas that are worthy of discussion, but Senator Clinton believes we need to first focus on fiscal responsibility."

Clearly Clinton doesn't want to talk publicly about Social Security. She has higher domestic priorities, the most important of which is enacting universal health care, a battle that could consume most of the energy invested in domestic issues early in her first term.

But she has been more than willing to talk about it when it has seemed to suit her political purposes, first to suggest that Obama is willing to embrace cuts in benefits that she might not (although that is far from clear now) and then to satisfy a voter in Iowa, where she is in the toughest battle of her campaign.

Her selectivity suggests that she has real views about the system that would shape her policies if she ever becomes president -- unless she is truly prepared to accept whatever her bipartisan commission proposes. One of the values of talking about those ideas in a presidential campaign is to begin to build public support for them. Instead, Clinton has engaged in an on-again, off-again conversation that appears more designed to suit her own purposes. She owes voters more than that.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  October 24, 2007; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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What Clinton knows - and Democrats better start recognizing - was written nearly 500 years ago: "It is necessary that the prince should know how to color his nature well, and how to be a hypocrite and dissembler. For men are so simple, and yield so much to immediate necessity, that the deceiver will never lack dupes."

-- Machiavelli - "The Prince" (1513)

Posted by: literate1 | October 29, 2007 8:37 PM | Report abuse

If Social Security really has to be "fixed" any time soon, that has to mean there won't be any $110 billion/year universal healthcare plans enacted into law. The illegal immigration issue really shows how little confidence the American people have in our political leaders. I'd like them to get out of Iraq and not touch anything else.

Posted by: Malia2 | October 27, 2007 11:44 PM | Report abuse

"Wow Clinton copies Edwards once again"-asher13

If Clinton were really copying Edwards she would be polling at about twelve percent nationally.

Posted by: danielhancock | October 27, 2007 10:20 PM | Report abuse

I do not have debate fatigue. I'm still waiting for one of the candidates to say something.

It is very American that the candidates can go on so long and not say anything. They are truly mainstream.

Posted by: Maddogg | October 26, 2007 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Why just criticize Clinton for being vaque on Social Security. It is not like the other candidates have been front and center on the issue either.

Posted by: danielhancock | October 24, 2007 10:20 PM | Report abuse

Wow Clinton copies Edwards once again, what a surprise. John Edwards has led on EVERY issue this campaign season, yet is running 3rd nationally. Go figure! The primarily corporate owned MSM has really done their job in neutralizing Edwards. People need to wake up and realize the only leader truly leading has been John Edwards. Even though his substantive stances on all the issues has rarely been covered in the press, HE HAS singlehandedly raised the bar for all the candidates. He is, and will remain, not corporate owned.
John Edwards 2008 'The Peoples President' a vote for John is a vote for yourself....

Posted by: asher13 | October 24, 2007 9:20 PM | Report abuse

Clinton is correct to be vague on SS. The reason is that we really don't know what's going to happen despite all the "chicken little" wails we hear. I am a mathematician. Here is a non-technical explanation of why the projections of the SSA are no more accurate than reading the entrails of a goat:

1. The demographics: Doom sayers say, "In 1945, for every Social Security beneficiary, we had 42 workers paying in. By 2002, we had just 3.3 workers per beneficiary. By 2030, we'll have only 2.2 workers per beneficiary." So what. I presume they somehow want us to conclude that Social Security is going to pot just by looking at this one statistic, i.e. this single statistic (workers per beneficiary) dominates all other inputs. Since they do not tell us the state of Social Security at any point, we actually can conclude nothing from this argument, and if we put in its current state, this argument shows exactly the opposite of what they want us to conclude!

Today Social Security is in the best state it has ever been in--the yearly surplus last year was the largest in its history. The SS Trust Fund is $1.5 TRILLION which is also its maximum. I don't have the figures for 2006, but they are similar. So what we have is that from 1945 to 2002, the number of workers per beneficiary decreased by 92%, but the health of Social Security is vastly better. Clearly there are other factors that dominate this one demographic statistic. Furthermore, if Social Security could improve its condition with a 92% decrease in this statistic, why should we worry about the 33% decrease they predict for the period 2002 to 2030?

2. The projections: Dr. Steven Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration is careful to point out that what he makes are _projections_, not _predictions_. They are based on assumptions, i.e. he says that _if_ this happens _then_, this will happen. These assumptions cannot be computed, he says, because they are event driven. You would have to be a fortune teller to even make an estimate. Because of this, he actually makes three projections. The one you are quoting is the "middle" projection. If you look at the record, you will see that his "high" projection has been consistently and significantly more accurate than the middle one. The high projection says that the SS Trust Fund will not go to zero during the next 75 years, SS will be able to pay all promised benefits, and there will be a surplus in the trillions at the end of the period.

3. An assumption: The middle projection of the Social Security Administration (the one you quote) assumes that the average growth in the GDP will be 1.78% over the next 75 years. If you just change this one assumption, keeping all the horrible demographics that you believe in, to 2.7% and do the exact same computation, then you get that the SS Trust Funds never goes to zero, all promised benefits can be paid, and there is a huge surplus at the end of the period. The average growth in the GDP over the last 75 years was 3.1%. I am not saying what the growth in the GDP will be (that would not be mathematics, but fortune telling), I am just saying that the exact same mathematics that gives you the bad forecast with the very low assumption, gives you a good forecast with a more reasonable one.

4. We must act now: In 1983, the SS Trust Fund was _one year_ from depletion. The government convened a commission that looked at the problem, made a few minor changes in SS (can you even name them?), and, behold, SS was safe for at least 30 years and maybe forever.

To sum up: The projections of the demise of SS are no more accurate than reading the entrails of a goat and we would be foolish to make any great changes because of them.

Posted by: lensch | October 24, 2007 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Clinton is all over the map on all the issues. flip flopping is not exactly the right term for her.
More like ducking and dodging and pandering.
I cannot imagine why my fellow democrats do not care that she is vauge, lacks real substance and has no clue where she really stands on any issue. Couple this with her obsession with secrecy and you have the makings of more of the same.
Is that what you really want? To continue the same as the past 7 years?

Posted by: vwcat | October 24, 2007 8:41 PM | Report abuse

Lets see........Hillary has so far copied Mr. Edwards on health care and social security..... but wait the week is not over. I'm sure she will add to the list. Edwards has all the ideas and she gets the credit. Wake up America.


Posted by: drtdave43 | October 24, 2007 8:07 PM | Report abuse

I am a white female and I also support Obama due to the fact that he is direct and consistent with every crowd he speaks to. He may be TOO honest to win. BUT FOLKS, Hillary Clinton is not a villian. If you feel she is, then who in the world do you support for President? Everyone who has a chance on either side is a "politician." Bill Clinton is not the candidate here but let the Republicans slime him and Hillary, because they certainly will!
Support Hillary if you must, better yet, look a little closer at Obama and hear him speak in person if you can before you rule him out as the best man for the job.
But leave Hillary alone! There is waaay too much Hillary hating going on out there in a world that thinks Guliani is a good guy. C'mon now!

Posted by: sheridan1 | October 24, 2007 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Hillary has developed a bad habit of publicly dragging her opponents through the mud for something they have said, and then later (privately) flip-flopping and adimitting that her opponents had actually been right.

It's an unethical habit. But not surprising.

But then....if Iowa voters are as backwards and behind the times as Hillary thinks they are (Iowa AND Mississippi) maybe they won't catch on.

Posted by: julieds | October 24, 2007 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Americans - wake up. Hillary clinton is not electable because she does not have enough base voter support. She can not win the primary or general elections.

Also, ask yourself, what has she ever accomplished successfully in her political career to help the American people?

Also, remember, Hillary Clinton has the blood of our American soldiers on her hand. And she recently signed another blank check to Bush against Iran.

The main stream media has it all wrong! Barack Obama is winning the race for the Presidency.


1. He has raised more money so far than any other Presidential candidate in history.

2. He is bringing in huge crowds. Just yesterday 9,500 people were rooting him on in Boston! His crowds are larger than all the other candidates.

3. He has the largest and most organized grassroots campaign.

4. He has the broadest range of supporters among all the candidates. He is loved by Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and people of all races and ages!

5. His supporters are extremely loyal and dedicated to making sure he is elected.

Also, the media and those so called polls have it all wrong about Blacks. Most Blacks ARE supporting Barack Obama.

Check out this Black web site:, go to: and click on the link that says Obama Watch, look for the political poll to your right. Check out the results. 75% want Barack Obama to be President.

I am a Black female and I support Barack Obama -- never Hillary Clinton -- that would be a travesty if I did.

Please consider voting for Brack Obama -- check out his web site at:

Posted by: AndreaT1 | October 24, 2007 6:58 PM | Report abuse

You people that don't like Hillary,for whatever reason,will just write krap about what she has planned if she did answer some of the question proposed to her. If she laughs,she gets railed,if she wears a different blouse,you write about her cleavage. What horse manure! No matter what she does or says,it's a losing situation. I suppose that your happy with the way the country is falling apart due to the REPUBLICAN Congress over the last 7 years. Say what you want about Bill and his "double speak", but the country was better off then than now. What happened to all of the surplus he built???????????
Now that we're getting the true costs (2 trillion $$$$$$)of the war,how do you think it's going to get paid??????????
This article,plus the other half dozen that are written in here everyday to make it seem like Hillary will destroy us is a total farce. All I can say is that you Hillary haters are a bunch of idiots. She has nothing but the best interests of the country and it's citizens at heart. You act like she's the only politician in history.except for Bill of course,to deal with Big Companies/Wall Street in history.
Every President has done exactly what you write about. I don't think she'll sell-out this countries future like georgie has done. The neo-way you people live under will kill off the poor/sick (no universal healthcare),they'll have the illegals do their work for them for dirt-cheap wages (no minimum wage increase in 10 years) so they can keep their multimillion dollar bonuses. You people are digusting to me because here is someone who is going to do what's right for this country but all you can do is knit-pick whatever she say's,or doesn't say. Okay,if she came up with an idea,all you do is find a way to make it sound bad(health-care plan). It's not socialized medicine,it's getting the sick the treatment they need. What republican has any ideas(besides tax-cuts)to solve our problems facing us????????????
It's despicable the way that some WAPO reporters are finding ways to make sure Hillary isn't elected. How many are on the Bushco payroll,why don't you do an article on that???????????
It's time to wake up people and quit listening to all this garbage before it's too late!
Sorry,I think it already is.

Posted by: jime2000 | October 24, 2007 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Hillary like Bill, like Bush, like Cheny, none of them can tell the Truth about anything.
Hillary is really a Republican in a Democratic Wet Suit. People should check Hillary's voting record, she is not the type of person one would want in the White House after it is Fumagated.

Posted by: lobear00 | October 24, 2007 5:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm a little suspicious of Balze's motivation too. His column header seemed to indicate to me that perhaps Clinton was secretly harboring a private investment plan something some like Bush tried. As it turns out, he really didn't have much of substance to offer concerning her thoughts or even lack of them, the column was really a no-read in retrospect.

The poster "dyinglikeflies" gets it, too bad more Americans can't see through the SS doomsday hype. The real problem like *flies says lies with funding for Medicare but that will never be fixed until they find the gonads to control medical cost ----which they never will.An out and out monopoly, the American Health Care system running amok over the US population. God help a country that has been dumbed down enough to allow this.

Posted by: wolfvorkian1 | October 24, 2007 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Chaulk one up for John Edwards.

Posted by: steven09 | October 24, 2007 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Sen. Clinton is a politician of the absolute worst kind. She is a phony!

Posted by: independent_1 | October 24, 2007 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Clinton is right to slip this question. She has already given some specific ideas out on other things, and of course the opposition tears it up. Why should she be the only one to put up suggestions for other people to tear down? She has to play this close to the vest so that the Republicans do not distort and demagogue the issue.

Posted by: kamdog | October 24, 2007 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Dan Balz is correct to point out the farcical nature of Hillary's position(s) on Social Security reform.

The 90's brought us Bill Clinton and his infamous double speak.

Hillary has already trumped her husband with her triple speak on Social Security.

The nation deserves better.

Posted by: kolp999 | October 24, 2007 5:08 PM | Report abuse

said hillary in response to the question: "hmmm..that's a great question and the answer is... ... ... ... ...morgan fairchild..yeh, that's the ticket, morgan fairchild.."

Posted by: w04equals666 | October 24, 2007 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Well, Balz, this is a first! You actually critized the esteemed, inevitable, Hillary Clinton! To me, Clinton has been vague on several issues. Surely this is not the first time you noticed her vagueness?

Posted by: bringbackimus | October 24, 2007 4:54 PM | Report abuse

How many bipartisan commissions have been impaneled within the past decade to provide recommendations on Social Security?

Posted by: MarkForstneger | October 24, 2007 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Gee, I don't remember a headline in the last two elections saying "Bush Vague On Social Security". Maybe that's because the Washington Post has become a part of the RNC message machine. Anyway, until a consensus is reached in Congress on a solution Clinton would be an idiot to declare "the" solution, since it would just be meaningless words. The real problem is with Medicare, not Social Security, as every sane person knows. We know what the Republicans propose, which is basically to weaken and ultimately get rid of Social Security over time. It's a big joke to try to get people scared about what Hillary Clinton's plans are compared to what the Republicans plan. I've never seen so much disingenuous spin in my life.

Posted by: dyinglikeflies | October 24, 2007 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I think her campaign is going to slowly unravel. Given that she has a large lead at this time over her rivals, Hillary tends to pick and choose her responses to questions.

But..when her campaign starts losing steam, and other candidates such as Obama or Edwards get a little momentum...I wonder how she will perform then.

Posted by: Kappazkupid | October 24, 2007 4:06 PM | Report abuse

One more thing that the Post might consider is that we the people are being taken for a ride in that they call this a free Country and that the great American dream is to own a home. No person can own a home in the Uniteds States of America. If you think you own a home here, paid for or not, stop paying your properity taxes and see what happens to your home. The Government will kick you out and sell it. You can't build on your properity without an expensive permit, and even then there are restrictions on what you can build. You can't even choose which garbage collection company you want or don't want, the city tells you who you will hire and you have to pay them what ever the city and the company decided on.
It appears that the so called illegal immigrants are the smartest ones, since they don't own, pay, or even get license or insurance. They make their money and send it back to Mexico all tax free. They seem to be the only ones who are enjoying the American Dream, to rest of us is becoming a nightmare

Posted by: standridgema | October 24, 2007 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Clinton Vague on Social Security? She hasn't been vague at all based on her passed answers as a wild eyed liberal...she's going to tax the cr## out of every thing that moves. There used to be 43 workers for every retiree, now there's only 3. SS was always a Ponzi scheme.

Posted by: ekim53 | October 24, 2007 3:47 PM | Report abuse

She can't even answer simple questions.

Posted by: johnnyna | October 24, 2007 03:39 PM

I'd be interested in you providing an example of any other presidential candidate answering either of those questions.

Posted by: zukermand | October 24, 2007 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and why isn't Dan writing about Medicare? Even Alan Greenspan admits Social Security has minor, if any, funding problems. Dan knows this but continues to play his readers for rubes. Why does he do this?

Posted by: zukermand | October 24, 2007 3:44 PM | Report abuse

What's happening to Dan Balz? Maybe his editors ought to sit him down and see if they can figure out what it is about Sen Clinton that makes him produce such unprofessional work when she is the subject. And perhaps they can get him to stop trying to write what she is thinking, it's just silly.

Posted by: zukermand | October 24, 2007 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Clinton's continued evasiveness is an insult to voters at a serious time in our country. She is wasting our time. Why should we listen to her any more? Check out the DesMoines Register when they ask her simple questions like 1) if you had to live in another country which one would you chose?, or 2) other than yourself who would be a good president? cs.dll/article?AID=/20071020/OPINION/710 17035/1001

She can't even answer simple questions.

Posted by: johnnyna | October 24, 2007 3:39 PM | Report abuse

American citizens have paid into Social Security all their working lives. Congress gets 15 percent of all the wages in America. 50 percent die before they can collect there paid for benefits. Who is the bad player here? It's not the American citizen. It's the incompetent congress. No, matter your political party affiliation, and setting aside your thoughts on issues. We all need to remember what it is to be an American Citizen. We need to make sure our elected representatives obey their Oath of Office and keep their Oath of Allegiance. See Know whom you are voting for.

Posted by: DrColes | October 24, 2007 3:35 PM | Report abuse

The "problem" of social security is only that the cap ensures those who earn the least, pay a larger percentage of their earnings for social security. Easy solution, as the funds runs down, raise or elminate the cap. I doubt it would ever need to be completely elimnated, but currently once you reach the cap, your percentage of your annual earnings paid into the system falls with each additional dollar. Thus, Bill Gates pays the same social security tax amount as someone who makes about $100,000/year. This is not equitable. The system is not approaching an emergency...thats just another GOP scare folks into handing that big chunk of cash over to wall street. They have GOT to be kidding!

Posted by: free-donny | October 24, 2007 3:33 PM | Report abuse

This is why some Democrats are against Hillary, she sounds just like a typical politician, carefully crafting her answers for her audience. When you come down to it, all the 'plans' of the Democrats will be similar. It is the personal qualities that are more important. Will they lead or will they follow? Will they be beholden to special interests? Will they continue the political battles of the last decades or will they work to create a bipartisan unity? When I ask myself these questions I don't think she is the strongest choice for Democrats. I see Obama as the strongest.

Posted by: goldie2 | October 24, 2007 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Where's the WaPo story entitled "Clinton: Vague on Every Position".

Posted by: thegribbler1 | October 24, 2007 3:28 PM | Report abuse

So let me get this straight, Hillary, wife of Bill, when asked a question gives a different answer depending on A) what her opponents have said B)the audience C) whether it is a private or a public conversation D)what will leave her options open and finally E) what she may really think? That it? Now where or from whom do you think she learned this? We had 8 years of this parsing, musing, pandering, process but not results oriented, lies and equivacations in the 1990's. Do we really want 4 more years of it?

Posted by: ronjaboy | October 24, 2007 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Social Security is short on funds because the politicians take all of the money at the end of each year that wasn't paid out in benefits and replace it with I.O.U's.
Twice they have tried to put a lock on it and were voted down. The greedy politicians with their spend and tax mentality, can't control their spending. If we the people fail to vote them out of office then we can only blame our selves for the continual fall of this once great Country. The American Dream is becoming a nightmare.

Posted by: standridgema | October 24, 2007 3:12 PM | Report abuse

The theory behind the income cap on the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes is that the taxes paid, and the benefits received, have some relationship to one another, as with other private pension plans. If the income cap is removed, will Social Security benefits be increased for those paying more in taxes? I doubt it, under the Democrats. So, such a proposal moves Social Security away from being a supplemental pension, toward [dare I say it] welfare. Maybe that is wise, maybe not, but it ought to be acknowledged as a departure from the historical purpose and nature of the program.

Posted by: mfmcbrid | October 24, 2007 3:01 PM | Report abuse

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