One of the remarkable things about the first presidential debate and the VP debate last night is how much rhetorical effort the Obama team has put into leaving open the possibility of cutting Social Security and Medicare. From the transcript of last night’s VP debate (via CNN):

BIDEN: Look, I was there when we did that with Social Security in 1983. I was one of eight people sitting in the room that included Tip O’Neill negotiating with President Reagan. We all got together and everybody said, as long as everybody’s in the deal, everybody’s in the deal, and everybody is making some sacrifice, we can find a way.

We made the system solvent to 2033. We will not, though, be part of any voucher plan eliminating – the voucher says, “Mom, when you’re – when you’re 65, go out there, shop for the best insurance you can get. You’re out of Medicare.” You can buy back in if you want with this voucher, which will not keep pace – will not keep pace with health care costs. Because if it did keep pace with health care costs, there would be no savings. That’s why they go the voucher. They – we will be no part of a voucher program or the privatization of Social Security.

The language continues to be weaselly but the implication is clear. The Obama team is open to cuts, like reduced benefits and raising the retirement age. Their only red line is privatization.

Democrats had the option to make this election a clear choice between them pledging to fully protecting these very popular programs and the Republican plan to voucherize them. Democrats have not done that.

Instead, they have made it a choice between a Democratic candidate who is very open to “modestly” cutting these programs and a Republican candidate who wants to privatize them. The Obama team seems to be banking on the fact that merely being less terrible on Social Security will be good enough.

In the middle of a very tight election the Obama team is refusing to do something that would be very popular and could easily move voters, making an unequivocal promise not to cut benefits. Obama has chosen not to use this proven political weapon.

Effectively, Obama has decided he would rather lose the election with his vague message on entitlements than win the election, if it means using tactics that would significantly restrict his ability to cut Social Security in his second term. This should make any actual liberal very nervous.