Paul Krugman: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Social Security and smears

(Patrick Semansky | AP) Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greet each other Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.

While the news media has been focused on the “spat” between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, something much more serious has been taking place between the Sanders campaign and Joe Biden. Not to sugarcoat it: The Sanders campaign has flat-out lied about things Biden said in 2018 about Social Security, and it has refused to admit the falsehood.

This is bad; it is, indeed, almost Trumpian. The last thing we need is another president who demonizes and lies about anyone who disagrees with him, and can’t admit ever being wrong. Biden deserves an apology, now, and Sanders probably needs to find better aides.

That said — and this is no excuse for the Sanders camp — it would be good to have Biden explain why, in the more distant past, he went along with the Beltway consensus that Social Security needed to be pared back.

First, about that Biden smear: In 2018, Biden gave a speech attacking Paul Ryan, the then-speaker of the House, for wanting to cut taxes on the rich and pay for those tax cuts by cutting Social Security and Medicare. There was nothing in his remarks that should bother progressives.

However, a Sanders adviser recently circulated a snippet from the video of the event that made it appear that Biden was actually supporting Ryan’s position and calling for Social Security cuts. A few days later a newsletter from the Sanders campaign quoted Biden out of context and made the same claim.

If you want a parallel, it’s as if I were to say, “Some white nationalists claim that Jews are responsible for all our problems,” and a political campaign put out a release saying, “Krugman says ‘Jews are responsible for all our problems.’ ”

Biden did make a misstep in his counterattack, mislabeling the misrepresented video clip as “doctored,” but that doesn’t mean he’s not still due an abject apology. Instead, however, the Sanders campaign has doubled down. Rather than admitting that it smeared a rival, the campaign is going around claiming that Biden has a long record of trying to cut Social Security. There is, unfortunately, some truth in that claim — but it doesn’t excuse either the original lie or the refusal to admit error.

So, about the element of truth in the criticism of Biden: Once upon a time, there was a peculiar consensus among media figures and would-be centrists that the long-run cost of entitlement programs was America’s biggest problem, that Social Security in particular was in crisis and that something had to be done, with the solution including benefit cuts.

This consensus wasn’t based on hard thinking; it was about the attitude politicians were expected to display. As I wrote way back in 2007, proclaiming a Social Security crisis requiring cuts was seen as a “badge of seriousness,” a way of showing how statesmanlike and tough-minded you were.

The candidate I was criticizing, by the way — the guy I said had been “played for a sucker” — was a politician named Barack Obama. But Biden was certainly pulled in by that conventional wisdom, too, so it’s not hard to find old quotes in which he suggested possible Social Security cuts in the name of fiscal responsibility.

But that was then. These days, Biden, like many Democrats, is calling for an expansion of Social Security benefits. That doesn’t make his previous statements irrelevant; he should acknowledge that he has changed his position, and his history on the issue is one reason progressives worry that, if elected, he might fritter away his political capital in vain attempts to reach bipartisan compromise. (His role in passing the draconian 2005 bankruptcy bill, which got Elizabeth Warren involved in politics, is another.)

None of this, however, justifies the Sanders campaign’s lying about recent statements by a man who, after all, may well be the Democratic presidential nominee — and who would, whatever his centrist history, be infinitely more progressive than the current occupant of the White House. And the smearing of Biden reinforces the concerns some of us have about Sanders.

There has always been an ugly edge to some of Sanders’ support, a faction of followers who denounce anyone raising questions about his positions — even Warren! — as a corrupt capitalist shill. Until now, however, you could argue that Sanders himself wasn’t responsible for the bad behavior of some of his supporters.

You can’t make that argument now. The dishonest smears and the doubling down on those smears are coming from the top of the Sanders campaign; even if they aren’t coming directly out of Sanders’ mouth, he could and should have stopped them. The fact that Sanders isn’t apologizing to Biden and replacing the people responsible says uncomfortable things about his character.

I don’t want to go overboard here. While there is a Trumpian feel to some of what we’re seeing from the Sanders campaign, Bernie Sanders is no Donald Trump. As we’ve just seen, there are some real issues with the people surrounding him, but they’re nothing like Trump’s gang of thugs. And in practice a Sanders presidency, like a Biden presidency, would be a vast improvement, morally as well as substantively, on what we have now.

But right now, Sanders and his campaign are behaving badly, and they need to be called on it.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.