Politics & Policy

Tensions Flare in Florida Senate Debate

Conventional wisdom says that Social Security reform is a political loser. Candidates who push for it have, historically, seen their support dry up faster than the cash balance in an entitlement trust fund. But Tuesday’s debate among Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist, and Kendrick Meek shows that the conventional wisdom may be wrong.

Being the fourth of six debates, most of the policy proposals and talking points have already been well aired, but pointed questions from the panel pushed the candidates, in some cases, beyond their stump speeches. On Social Security, the panelist’s query was clear: “The choice, economists argue, is to raise taxes eventually, or cut benefits. Given that choice, first and foremost, which is your choice?” In previous years, platitudes to staunchly defend the program may have won the day, but last night, in their verbal somersaults to avoid the issue, Crist and Meek just looked silly.

Crist’s answer initially wandered off into tax cuts. When he was interrupted and directed back toward the question, he said it was a false choice. “I think what we have to do is be smart and be prudent and protect our seniors,” Crist said.

Then the question was thrown to Meek.

“I think it’s very, very important to pay attention to what the governor just said. He said very little,” Meek said, before saying very little himself by starting a tangent to health-care reform and the Bush tax cuts.

That’s when the moderator broke in. “But again, I’m not hearing — from either one of you — what’s going to happen to Social Security when we know that full benefits won’t be able to be paid out in 2037. So, neither of you is proposing any specific solution,” he said.

“Reports indicate that Social Security is solvent, at least, until 2037 or 2041,” Crist defended. “It’s one of the few programs in Washington D.C. that actually works, and typical of Washington DC, it’s what politicians attack.”

“But,” the exasperated moderator broke in again, “It won’t work in barely more than a generation.”

Rubio’s position, that changes need to be made for younger workers, has been labeled extreme by his opponents, but the direct response was golden compared to his opponents’ evasiveness.

“Let me tell you what the year 2037 is. That’s the year my daughter turns, pretty much, my age. It’s not that far away. And the closer we get to that year, the harder it is to solve these problems,” Rubio said. “Younger workers, younger people like myself — people 20, 30, 40 years from retirement — need to understand that we are going to have to discuss different options on the table,” citing price-indexing or a raise in the retirement age as two examples.

Also notably absent from Crist’s Social Security speech was any mention of his idea to strengthen the program by offering illegal aliens a path to citizenship. Crist had advocated the plan in several previous debates but came under fire on Monday for incorrectly suggesting the idea was backed by President Clinton’s Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Meek pointed out that Crist had changed his tune slightly on the health-care reform bill, too, by calling it “Obamacare.”

“I’m just shocked to hear, now, the new lingo from the governor taking about Obamacare. I wonder if he said that to the president when he was walking with him on the beach,” Meek said. “I think it’s important to know that you’ve got to have a leader that will stand up regardless of what the poll says.”

Several times, the candidates wrested control of the program from the moderators and went after each other directly, prompting a panelist to joke that that they were getting “practice on the filibuster.”

Crist and Meek tussled over the governor’s former support for offshore drilling and his appearance at a rally with Sarah Palin.

Crist: “I never said ‘drill baby drill.’”

Meek: “You were clapping.”

Crist: “I was there to support my friend John McCain.”

For his part, Crist went after Rubio personally, suggesting that Rubio had engaged in a pay-for-play, selling his house to a relative of a chiropractor who was lobbying him when he served as speaker of the statehouse.

In a heated exchange during which Crist interrupted several times, Rubio called the claim “categorically false” and directed voters to his website for the dirty details. The Miami Herald writes that the home was sold at, “a price that was in line with comparable home sales.”

As election day nears, its seems, tensions rise.

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