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Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., charged Republican Tommy Tuberville of weakening Social Security and Medicare. (Screenshot) Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., charged Republican Tommy Tuberville of weakening Social Security and Medicare. (Screenshot)

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., charged Republican Tommy Tuberville of weakening Social Security and Medicare. (Screenshot)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg August 13, 2020

Doug Jones exaggerates Tommy Tuberville’s position on Social Security, Medicare

If Your Time is short

  • In the Alabama U.S. Senate race, Republican Tommy Tuberville once voiced interest in private investment accounts in place of Social Security contributions.

  • Tuberville suggested entitlement programs broadly would be a place for cuts.

  • Tuberville said he opposes cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

The most vulnerable Democrat in the U.S. Senate, Alabama’s Doug Jones, leveled a traditional Democratic charge against his Republican opponent Tommy Tuberville.

"Tuberville is for privatizing Social Security and cutting Medicare," an Aug. 6 campaign ad said.

This sort of attack is hardly new. Our archives are full of accusations that someone would undermine Social Security or Medicare or both. Democrats accuse Republicans, Republicans accuse Democrats, and sometimes, Democrats accuse Democrats.

But Jones faces a special challenge in cornering Tuberville on policy.

Tuberville is a newly minted politician who spent most of the past 25 years coaching college football, including a decade at Auburn, one of Alabama’s two powerhouse teams. Tuberville avoided any debates during the primary, and his interviews were more about values than policy.

On these entitlement programs, Tuberville has given few details. In looking at what he has said, Tuberville has expressed an interest in private investment accounts as a substitute for Social Security, but said nothing about what that would look like. He said federal entitlement spending should come down, but said nothing about what he had in mind. A newspaper reported that he said he opposes cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Particularly on Medicare, Jones’ ad stretches what’s known about Tuberville’s views. 

Social Security

Tuberville has called Social Security a "good" program. According to one newspaper article, he told voters outside a Montgomery restaurant in February that he opposed cuts to defense, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Tuberville did touch on changing how Social Security should be funded in three early interviews shortly after he launched his campaign in the spring of 2019. Tuberville twice floated the idea of people putting their Social Security contributions into a stock market account similar to 401(k) retirement funds. He mentioned it briefly in an April 24, 2019, interview with television station WRBL. 

Tuberville got into more details with radio host Dale Jackson on May 2, 2019. Jackson brought up the deficit and asked Tuberville what could be done about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Tuberville mentioned a hybrid Social Security system, proposed by President George W. Bush, where people could choose to put some of their contributions into relatively low-risk stock market funds. The effort stalled as public concerns grew and opponents tagged it as privatization.

Here’s the full exchange between Tuberville and Jackson:

Tuberville: "What we have got to do is start a 401(k) for everybody. I think President Bush was for this." 

Jackson: "So, you want to do away with Social Security and start 401(k)s."

Tuberville: "Well, this would be Social Security, but you would put the 7% in —"

Jackson: "But it’s there, as opposed to being spent elsewhere."

Tuberville: "And the government can’t spend it. If we don’t do it, you’re not going to have any money. So, it’s Social Security, but it’s a 401(k). Retirement planning, that was what Social Security was meant to be. It’s not a slush fund."

Featured Fact-check

Privatization can be difficult to define. To some experts, Tuberville’s words come close.

"Privatization is often used more when the 401(k) is used as a substitute and tries to make use of current revenues to Social Security," said Eugene Steuerle, cofounder of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

The Tuberville campaign rejected the privatization label and said he never got so specific. Research consultant and spokesman Gary Maloney said during the Jackson interview, Tuberville was "spitballing." 

"Neither then nor now has he committed to any changes," Maloney said. "Coach (Tuberville) is furious about politicians stealing the Social Security money of seniors, and he wants that solved."

Asked if Tuberville would consider the 401(k) option today, Maloney told PolitiFact "the 401(k) proposal is off the table."

We asked the Tuberville campaign for any evidence that Tuberville had publicly rejected the 401(k) notion before we called. There seems to be none. At the time of the Jones ad, Tuberville’s statements on people putting their Social Security contributions into a personal investment account were the most detailed available.

Steuerle affirmed that Social Security presents a daunting puzzle. As more people retire, there are fewer workers paying in to cover the cost of the money going out.

Medicare

Tuberville has said even less about Medicare than he has about Social Security.

The closest he came was in a radio interview with Scott Dawson early in his campaign. Tuberville was talking about both Social Security and Medicare running out of money.

"Our elected officials have taken our money and blown it," Tuberville said July 30, 2019. "Kicking the can down the road and trying to do other things we have no business doing, and it’s just an absolute disaster, and I don’t know what we’re going to do. I really don’t. We’ve got to make adjustments soon. We’re about to run over the cliff." 

In the May 2019 interview with Jackson, when asked about what he would cut, Tuberville said, "Well it goes back to entitlements, where most of our money is spent."

The Jones campaign told us that since entitlements include Medicare, Tuberville was open to cuts to the program.

The Tuberville campaign said in a statement, "Coach Tuberville has not discussed cutting Medicare or changing the program in any way."

Our ruling

The Jones campaign said Tuberville supports privatizing Social Security and cutting Medicare. At the time of the ad, Tuberville had said he was interested in allowing people to direct their Social Security payments into a 401(k)-type account, which matches some definitions of privatization.

The Tuberville campaign says now that he is not interested in the 401(k) option, but that was not public knowledge at the time of the Jones campaign ad.

Early on, Tuberville spoke generically about favoring cuts in entitlements, but he did not mention Medicare. He told voters at a campaign stop in February that he opposed cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

There’s some support for the ad’s claim about Social Security given his initial comments. But the ad is wrong about his views on Medicare.

We rate this claim Half True.

Our Sources

Doug Jones, Club Scheme, Aug. 6, 2020

WRBL, Tuberville running as ‘Common Sense Christian Conservative’ for Alabama U.S. Senate seat, April 24, 2019

Dale Jackson Show, Tuberville interview, May 2, 2019

Dawson Now, Tuberville interview, July 30, 2019

Montgomery Advertiser, Tuberville talks Trump, immigration, debt;Says president brought 'moral values' to troubled country, Feb. 5, 2020 

Tommy Tuberville for Senate, Campaign website, accessed Aug. 7, 2020

Brookings, Why the 2005 Social Security Initiative Failed, and What it Means for the Future, Sept. 21, 2007

PolitiFact, Social Security: A critical program with an uncertain future, Dec. 26, 2019

PolitiFact, Medicare in 5 charts: A 2018 midterm report, Sept. 11, 2018

Interview, Gary Maloney, research consultant, Tuberviller for Senate, Aug. 7, 2020

Email exchange, Eugene Steuerle, cofounder, Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, Aug. 6, 2020

Email exchange, Owen Kilmer, spokesman, Doug Jones for Senate, Aug. 6, 2020

Statement, Paul Shashy, communications director, Tuberville for Senate, Aug. 7, 2020

 

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Doug Jones exaggerates Tommy Tuberville’s position on Social Security, Medicare

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