House Majority Leader Eric Cantor set off a feeding frenzy on the left when he made a statement at the Hoover Institution on March 21, 2011, that seemed to suggest he wants to abolish entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
The statement in question came during a discussion of the need to reform entitlement programs. Said Cantor: "We're going to have to come to grips with the fact that these programs cannot exist if we want America to be what we want America to be."
The quote shot around the liberal blogosphere and was circulated in a statement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, with dire warnings about Republicans finally revealing their true intentions for Social Security and Medicare.
On March 31, 2011, the liberal groups Americans United for Change and the group Strengthen Social Security put out a press release titled, "U.S. Rep. Schakowsky, Leading Seniors Advocates: Will Republicans in Congress Condemn House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s Outrageous Calls for Abolishing Social Security and Medicare?"
The release calls on Republicans in Congress to "denounce the radical, out-of-touch statements made by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who said Social Security and Medicare 'cannot exist' for future generations."
Later that morning, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and the two groups held a teleconference with the media in which Schakowsky blasted Cantor's statement as "stunning" and "completely out of touch with where the American people are right now." Without Social Security, she said, 14 million seniors would fall into poverty.
Abolishing Social Security and Medicare are pretty radical political ideas, but is that actually Cantor's position?
One need only listen to Cantor's statements immediately before and after the quote seized on by Democrats to see that's not the case.
Here's a fuller transcript of Cantor's statement at Hoover:
"Our (entitlement) reforms are centered on the fact that you've got to protect today's seniors.
"I mean, just from the very notion that it said that 50 percent of beneficiaries under the Social Security program use those monies as their sole source of income. So we've got to protect today's seniors. But for the rest of us? For -- you know, listen, we're going to have to come to grips with the fact that these programs cannot exist if we want America to be what we want America to be.
"So, we're going to have to accept some changes as far as the rest of us. And what we're saying is for those 55 and older who do not have to worry about changes in benefits, but for the rest of us, we will. We will have to do that."
So for starters, Cantor is saying that he does not intend to mess with the Social Security benefits for current retirees, or those nearing retirement.
But what about those under 55? Cantor and other Republican leaders have been short on details. In his speech at Hoover, Cantor said that within three weeks, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will be unveiling a budget for the coming fiscal year that will include specifics on how the Republicans want to reform entitlement programs. In the past, Rep. Ryan has called for a plan that would allow workers under 55 to begin investing a portion of their Social Security taxes in a series of funds managed by the government.
As for Medicare, Ryan's plan again called for leaving Medicare benefits as they are for people over 55. But for those younger than 55, his proposal "creates a standard Medicare payment to be used for the purchase of private health coverage." Ryan's plan included a number of other Medicare changes as well. But Republican leaders never signed off on the Ryan plan, and it's unclear what the upcoming Republican budget plan will include. And while Cantor has has provided general support for Ryan's plan, he has not been clear about where he personally stands on the plan's specific proposals for Social Security and Medicare.
But while Cantor isn't tipping his hand with many specifics, in recent public statements Cantor has talked about changing, but not abolishing entirely, the programs for those under 55.
In an op-ed for Politico on Feb. 19, 2011, for example, Cantor wrote about the need to "rein in" entitlements. In an interview on CNBC on March 16, 2011, Cantor said the Republican plan will "protect today's seniors and those nearing retirement. But for those of us 54 and under, we're going to insist to go and deal with the fact that if these programs are going to be around, they're going to have to look a lot different. That's the plain and simple fact of it."
"Looking a lot different" isn't the same as abolishing.
Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon told PolitiFact via e-mail that the statements from Schakowsky and other Democrats and liberal groups are a deliberate distortion of his position.
"People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts," Fallon said. "With all due respect, what the congresswoman is saying is simply untrue – Eric has made clear for months that he is committed to ensuring the long-term viability of these programs by addressing their solvency issues now. What's indisputable is that doing nothing – which seems to be the position of the president, his party's leaders, and Congresswoman Schakowsky – will ensure these programs remain on a path to bankruptcy, resulting in a debt-fueled economic crisis. We should be able to debate different solutions for preserving Social Security and Medicare for future generations based on intellectual honesty, not demagoguery and fear campaigns."
Asked about Cantor's position on Medicare, Fallon said that Cantor "has been pretty clear that entitlement programs won't change for those 55 and above, but we must work to strengthen these programs so that they're around for future generations for those folks 54 and below."
In a story about the Democratic furor over Cantor's statement, Brian Beutler of the liberal site Talking Points Memo wrote that there is "plenty of fodder for criticism" of Cantor's statement.
"But it's pretty far-fetched to say Cantor proposed eliminating Social Security outright for people under age 55," Beutler wrote.
A Cantor spokesman told TPM that Cantor simply misspoke in the Hoover address. And Fallon told us that, "Leader Cantor does not want to abolish Social Security and Medicare."
But when asked in her teleconference about the possibility Cantor misspoke, Schakowsky wasn't buying it.
"It might be some sort of Freudian slip where Eric Cantor showed everyone what he really thinks," Schakowsky said. "...I think the slip was that he said it out loud."
In a press release, Tom McMahon, executive director, Americans United for Change, said, "This was no slip of the tongue. We’ve long since suspected Eric Cantor’s true intentions of going down a path towards abolishing Social Security and Medicare as we know them -- intentions that he may now regret saying out loud in public."
In the release and the telephone news conference, Schkowsky and Americans United failed to provide any solid evidence that Cantor wants to abolish the programs. They have cherry-picked a portion of his comments to the Hoover Institution that his office says does not reflect his true position.
Cantor has repeatedly said that entitlement program reform needs to be part of the national discussion -- a controversial enough idea on its own -- but his lack of detail about how that ought to happen leaves him open to speculative attacks. The fuller context of Cantor's statement at Hoover, together with statements he has made about Social Security and Medicare in other recent interviews, however, give no indication that he would like to abolish them. That fuller context suggests Cantor probably meant to say that Social Security and Medicare cannot exist as they are now. That's different. It was a linguistic misstep on a highly volatile issue, but the Democrats' reaction was a clear overreach. We rule the Americans United claim False.