Linda McMahon’s fuzziness on the minimum wage allowed Democrats to put her on the defensive late in her first campaign for U.S. Senate in 2010, casting the Republican millionaire as tone deaf on a poverty issue.

Democrat Chris Murphy tried a similar tack this week on a far more explosive issue, arguing to the media and voters that McMahon has made a far more significant gaffe with her ambiguous call for a “sunset” review of Social Security.

Murphy’s interpretation seems a stretch: He translated McMahon’s comments as a stunning proposal to phase out the only income many Americans can expect in retirement — in other words, an act of political suicide.

“Clearly, I am not looking in any way to phase out Social Security,” McMahon said.

But over two campaigns for U.S. Senate in 2010 and 2012, it is not always clear what McMahon means when talking about Social Security, Medicare, or other fiscal issues, including her take on Paul Ryan’s controversial approach to federal spending.

McMahon flirts with a wide range of approaches toward solvency for Medicare and Social Security, a stance she says would allow her to participate in bipartisan negotiations if elected to succeed Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. (To be fair to McMahon, President Obama has displayed a similar flexibility.)

But she ultimately shrinks from specific plans, especially when they bring controversy. In interviews Thursday and Friday, McMahon and her communication director, Todd Abrajano, were more emphatic about what McMahon doesn’t mean than what she does.

“I think we have to put everything on the table and take a look at it,” McMahon said of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s controversial ideas about controlling federal spending, including privatizing Medicare.

Abrajano, in a separate interview, said that doesn’t mean McMahon is open to transforming Medicare into a voucher program that would give seniors to money to buy their own health coverage. Her willingness to put them “on the table” only signified that everyone should be free to offer their ideas, he said.

Her defense of her Social Security sunset remarks make clear that she opposes killing Social Security, but they raise other questions about her grasp of the threats to the program’s solvency.

In McMahon’s view, as expressed during the candidate’s forum five months ago and again this week, one of the problems with Social Security is that the program is not subjected to a rigorous review.

“We cannot continue doing things the way we are doing with Social Security. We’re just simply going to be bankrupt,” McMahon said in April. “And I do believe that, that there are ways to look at, you know, what we’re trying to do when we put Social Security in place? We didn’t go back and review it. In other words, I believe in sunset provisions when we pass this kind of legislation, so that you take a look at it 10, 15 years down the road to make sure that it’s still going to fund itself.”

A sunset provision in legislative parlance means setting a date by which programs or laws will expire, unless a legislature acts to reauthorize them. Murphy said McMahon, in effect, was calling for a phase-out of Social Security absent a congressional reauthorization.

“What I really meant was we should have check points,” McMahon said in a recent interview with The Mirror.  “If we pass major legislation, we ought to have a timeframe for review of it, to see if we are still funding it properly, to see if the assumptions that were made when you passed the bill are still there. That’s what I meant by it. It’s checkpoints along the way to make sure we don’t get in the situation where we are today.”

But McMahon’s comments betray a lack of understanding about Social Security, which already is subject to annual reviews of its solvency and demographic trends, such as the life expectancy of its present and future recipients.

“Social Security, I believe if my memory serves me correctly, was first started in 1935, when the average life expectancy was 62. Well, God bless us, we’re living longer,” McMahon said this week. “And we just haven’t made the corrections or, I think, the re-evaluation along the way. So, I think we have to look. Are the assumptions correct? Is the life expectancy the same? Is the funding mechanism correct?”

Congress does not lack for data on Social Security. It is deadlocked by a unwillingness to raise payroll taxes to better fund it, or to reduce costs by raising the age of eligibility, or a combination of both.

Abrajano said McMahon wants another level of review, one that would better focus congressional attention.

Neither he nor McMahon could explain what form that would take, though Abrajano was emphatic about what form it would not take: There would be no sunset deadline to force congressional action.

This year and in 2010, McMahon has argued that no rational debate is possible on Social Security or Medicare in the context of a campaign.

“Each issue gets demagogued,” she said. “You get locked into a particular plan, then it makes it very difficult when you get there to really talk about the issues.”

McMahon said she promises to be open to a bipartisan solution on Medicare, but she is opposed to any reduction in benefits for current recipients.

“What I’m not going to do, obviously, and I will continue to say this, cause I do not want our seniors to be frightened, and I think that’s what happens, that all these scare tactics are used,” McMahon said. “I will not support any budget that is going to reduce, you know, the funding for Medicare and impact them. But we are going to have to do some reforms, and let’s put all the issues on the table, and get them scored, and talk about them and debate them.”

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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