issues

SOCIAL SECURITY: A Lasting Fix

Frank Luntz is a news analyst and contributor to CBS News and the Fox News Channel

Voters want Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to help solve the single biggest line item in the U.S.'s budget—which is growing every year

We sometimes forget that America’s character has been forged by calamitous conflict. Subjects against kings. Southerners versus northerners. Republicans versus Democrats. Our most challenging moments—even our most regrettable ones—have ultimately united us as people and propelled America toward a renewed commitment to progress.

What a tragedy, then, that this presidential campaign, waged by the two most unlikable candidates in modern American history, has driven us so far apart. It’s not just their personalities that we have come to reject. It’s their lack of policy and a plan to deliver real results. There’s a reason why Washington itself has a lower approval rating than ever before: nothing ever gets done. No results because there are no solutions. Not surprisingly, Americans of all political stripes have had enough of a government utterly incapable of governing effectively.

While the narrative of this mad, bad campaign swings from border walls to Benadryl, serious issues like Social Security have been flung into the ‘too hard to tackle’ basket. Whether you are paying into it or receiving it, it’s an issue that impacts just about everyone, so why is nobody talking about it?

I raise the Social Security issue because my most recent focus group of undecided voters in Virginia raised it voluntarily. Social Security matters to them—and they know that it’s in trouble. We tested clip after clip of each candidate’s approach of feeding red-meat slogans and sound-bites to their party’s respective comfort zones, and it became painfully clear to them that neither candidate is offering a real plan with meaningful substance. In such a tight race, this isn’t just serious…it’s positively dangerous.

In desperation, I stopped the videos and let the undecided voters “dial test” me. I articulated a sweeping hypothetical reform proposal, taking the best Republicans have to offer (raising the retirement age for those under 50) and the best the Democrats have to offer (increasing the payroll tax cap so that wealthiest workers pay a little more). I coupled this with a bi-partisan commitment to prevent Congress from raiding the Social Security Trust Fund. The result? Applause.

The lesson learned? A little compromise goes a long way when rooted in the common understanding and willingness of the American people to work around Congress and address the challenges we face. It is how we’ve always done it. If we’re to solve massive challenges such as Social Security, we need to rediscover an approach that prioritizes meaningful progress over ideological rigidity and marching orders, and do it fast.

Conventional wisdom—and political consultant advice—would tell you that a sweeping Social Security reform proposal this late in the campaign would be a terrible play—pitting anxious seniors, fiscal conservatives, liberal Democrats, and working Baby Boomers against each other. Normally I’d agree, but conventional wisdom has been consistently wrong about everything so far.

Is Social Security a sexy issue? Nope. But it is a far higher priority to voters than coughing fits, birther issues, tax returns and deplorables. Give the American people some credit; they may just find a meaningful policy discussion refreshing.

So how does a politician survive the third rail of Social Security? The voters in our focus groups offer four essential principles:

  1. Today’s recipients should not be impacted. Absolutely no one wants to change the rules for those now receiving Social Security or for those just a few years away. They paid into the system and deserve to benefit from it.
  2. It must be an all-in approach. Everyone needs to have skin in the game. Every American, young and old, rich and poor, has to give a little in order to gain a lot for their retirement future. The very nature of Social Security is an insurance policy for all, so we all have to sacrifice a little for everyone to succeed.
  3. The solution must be comprehensive and permanent. Americans don’t want to make changes now, only to make even more changes later. They want Washington to take a look at every option and then make decisions for the long-term
  4. It must be bipartisan. That sentiment needs to be honed and harnessed. Meaningful progress mandates meaningful bipartisan compromise.

The debates are upon us. Consider how a joint commitment for genuine Social Security reform, or fixing Medicare, or tackling any number of serious, significant issues would instantly change the mood and outlook of the American electorate. Even if just one candidate did it, the change would be palpable. It is high time in this low season to infuse a little more substance into a destructive and depressing race—not just because it is the right thing to do but it might even have the power and potential to be a deciding factor in November.

Imagine that… an election outcome actually determined by the issues.

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