On Social Security, A Divided Democratic Party

Willingness to allow adjustment to benefit increases raises left’s hackles

December 18, 2012

Democratic Party leaders on Tuesday signaled a willingness to accept an adjustment to Social Security benefits that New York Times’ columnist and amateur psychohistorian Paul Krugman has called "cruel and stupid."

The adjustment, known as chained CPI, would save about $130 billion by changing the way Social Security benefit increases are calculated and ultimately slow their rate of growth over time.

Obama reportedly offered the adjustment as part of his most recent proposal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.

Liberals were not pleased.

Liberal blogger Jonathan Chait decried the "painful cuts" in Obama’s proposal.

Justin Ruben, executive director of, said the group’s members "overwhelmingly oppose" cuts to Social Security benefits and that any agreement that does so would be seen as "a betrayal that sells out working and middle class families."

Krugman lamented the "awful" symbolism of a Democratic president agreeing to cut Social Security.

However, top Democrats signaled a willingness to accept, or declined to rule out, chained CPI as part of a larger budget deal despite left-wing criticisms.

When MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) on Tuesday if she could sell the Social Security adjustment to House Democrats despite reservations among liberals, Pelosi said "I do," before noting that President Obama "has demonstrated great leadership in what he put forth."

"The Democrats will stick with the president," Pelosi said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney defended the proposal.

"The president has always said, as part of this process, when we're talking about the spending cut side of this, that it would require tough choices by both sides," he told reporters. "[Chained CPI] is a technical adjustment that supporters of it and economists, outside economists say is meant to make the government's estimates of inflation more accurate."

Senate leaders Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) both declined to say if they would support a final fiscal cliff proposal that included chained CPI despite previously voicing strong opposition to any changes to Social Security.