Hillary Clinton’s Baby Steps on Social Security

New polling suggests she could be safe endorsing the more liberal position advocated by Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.

Aug. 13, 2015, 1 a.m.

Hillary Clinton took her first step to the left on Social Security Wednesday, expressing an openness to taxing the rich more to keep the program solvent. But new polling suggests that the Democratic front-runner could be safe going even further and endorsing a more liberal position advocated by her primary opponents: expanding Social Security benefits.

Expanding benefits is the preferred policy of the so-called Elizabeth Warren wing of the party and Clinton’s two most prominent rivals for the nomination: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

So far, she hasn’t been willing to go there. But as Sanders continues to rise in the polls and generate excitement on the grassroots Left, Clinton is likely to feel the pressure to be more precise about her policy prescriptions. And the significant enthusiasm for a democratic socialist in Sanders is the surest sign yet that many Democrats have moved left since Clinton’s last campaign.

Such a move would also give Clinton the clearest possible contrast to the other side. Republicans like Chris Christie and Ted Cruz, meanwhile, have discussed benefit cuts and partial privatization, respectively.

A new survey from the AARP, commemorating Social Security’s 80th anniversary, found that 61 percent of Americans believe Social Security’s current benefits—the average is $1,332 per month, though it varies by person—are too low. Large majorities of people 30 and older said that wasn’t enough; those 18 to 29 years old were roughly split between “too low” and “about right.” Almost no one thinks benefits are too high.

While O’Malley and Sanders have eagerly embraced expanding Social Security, Clinton has been coy. Her campaign demurred in April when asked by National Journal. During an economic policy speech last month, Clinton talked about “defending and enhancing Social Security and making it easier to save for the future.”

Wednesday, she went somewhat further, indicating that she was receptive to increasing payroll taxes on the rich to help fund Social Security, The Washington Post reported. Right now, no income above $118,500 is taxed to pay for the retirement program.

“I can understand why you’d think that was unfair,” the former secretary of State said in response to a question at a New Hampshire campaign event. She then outlined the changes she was willing to examine.

“We do have to look at the cap, and we have to figure out whether we raise it or whether we raise it a little and then jump over and raise it more higher up,” Clinton said.

That is a change for Clinton; in 2008, she had opposed Barack Obama’s proposal to lift the tax cap.

It starts to align her with Sanders, Clinton’s most serious primary rival at the moment. (A poll released Tuesday night showed Sanders leading Clinton in New Hampshire). Sanders has proposed legislation taxing income above $250,000, thereby keeping a pledge not to raise taxes on the so-called middle class. The Social Security actuary estimated the proposal would keep the program solvent through 2065 while also increasing benefits.

“At a time when over half of the American people have less than $10,000 in savings and senior poverty is increasing, we should not be talking about cutting Social Security benefits,” Sanders said in March when introducing his bill. “We should be talking about expanding benefits to make sure that every American can retire with dignity.”

In February, the Center for American Progress—founded by Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and currently headed by her longtime policy adviser Neera Tanden—put out a report highlighting income inequality as the source of Social Security’s financial problems. One of the implied solutions then was raising taxes on the rich.

The AARP poll was conducted by phone with 1,200 U.S. adults and had a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.

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