Shining a light on a murky election-year Social Security debate

In North Carolina, a television ad attacks incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan for supporting a “controversial plan” that “raises the retirement age” for Social Security. The ad comes from Crossroads GPS, the super PAC run by Republican Karl Rove.

A Republican attack on a Democrat for cutting Social Security benefits? It’s just one instance where voters are hearing confusing claims about Social Security reform. Social Security has surfaced as a major issue in Senate rates in Alaska, Colorado, Iowa and Arkansas.

Seeing through the fog can be difficult. Hagan, for example, left herself open to Rove’s attack by saying encouraging things about the 2010 Bowles-Simpson report on the federal deficit – which did call for a gradual increase in retirement ages. Bowles-Simpson never came up for a vote, and Hagan never specifically endorsed higher retirement ages. But no matter.

Elsewhere, candidates are lobbing charges at one another about privatizing or means-testing Social Security – while others want to pump revenue into the system and expand benefits. Many candidates say they want to “strengthen” Social Security or keep it “strong.” That could mean anything, but usually it is a tactic for leaving the door open to benefit cuts.

Social Security is most Americans’ primary retirement resource, and voters deserve straight answers. A debate about the program’s financial challenges is overdue, and could bubble up to the surface in Congress soon.

Here are the questions on Social Security that voters – and journalists – should be posing to candidates this fall.