At first blush, the clever trap President Joe Biden set for Republicans in his State of the Union Address to get them to repudiate attacks on Social Security and Medicare looked like a one-off exercise. Biden, it appeared, wanted to keep the GOP from using a critical debt-limit bill to get bipartisan cover for hostile measures aimed at the popular retirement programs. But as time goes by, it is becoming clearer that the president had a much bigger goal in mind: regularly reminding voters heading into the 2024 election that only Democrats can be trusted to protect the benefits seniors rely on. Biden is pursuing a play that has frequently worked for Democrats whenever Republicans try to cut, “reform,” or otherwise tamper with Social Security and Medicare, as they are chronically prone to do. It’s a trap Republicans can’t resist stepping into.
Signaling the beginning of a major campaign theme, Biden kept hammering away on the subject of entitlements in the days after the State of the Union, as Axios reported:
He followed up the State of the Union with a speech in Florida on Thursday in which he attacked the GOP’s positions related to prescription drugs, the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security — a laundry list of some of Democrats’ most comfortable policy arenas.” I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security, Medicare. Well let me say this: If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare,” Biden said.
Biden avoided naming names in his State of the Union, referring only to the malign intentions of “some Republicans.” But he and other Democrats aren’t being reticent any more. It’s clear he was alluding, for example, to Florida Senator Rick Scott’s proposal to regularly sunset all federal programs (which the senator finally tweaked on Friday, after much outcry, to exclude Social Security and Medicare). Scott’s plan was so politically tone-deaf that Republicans themselves, most notably Mitch McConnell, have blasted it as well. But it’s not the only recent GOP attack on retirement programs. Just last year, the Republican Study Committee, a group that includes three-fourths of House Republicans, released a budget proposal that included a hike in the Social Security retirement age, a new means test for benefits, work requirements for some beneficiaries, and the diversion of Social Security funds into private accounts. As veteran journalistic defender of Social Security Josh Marshall put it, the RSC plan “included just about every Social Security cut on offer.”
This was hardly new. There were similar “entitlement reform” initiatives aimed at Medicare in the several Republican budget plans sponsored by Paul Ryan during the tea-party era of the Obama administration — mostly involving efforts to change guaranteed benefits to subsidies for private health insurance. They will come back to haunt the Republicans who endorsed them, including Ron DeSantis, who served in the U.S. House before he was elected governor of Florida. Indeed, if DeSantis runs for president in 2024 as expected, Donald Trump is almost certainly going to go after him on Social Security and Medicare, just like Biden. As the Washington Post observes:
Trump moved to wield the issue as a wedge in the primary, particularly against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, with a video message last month urging Republicans to use negotiations over raising the debt ceiling to cut spending but not “a single penny” from Social Security or Medicare. He also posted a short video clip of a younger DeSantis praising Paul D. Ryan, the former House budget chairman from Wisconsin who famously proposed replacing Medicare with giving seniors money for private health insurance.
Republicans with the “entitlement reform” stain on their records need to appreciate how deadly it has been for leaders in their party to touch what was once known as the “third rail of American politics.” In 2005, fresh from a narrow reelection victory, President George W. Bush unveiled a plan to partially privatize Social Security benefits for new retirees, saying, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” He made the initiative his major domestic-policy priority, hyping it in his State of the Union address. It was a disaster, as the Brookings Institution’s Bill Galston recalls:
Within weeks, observers noticed that the more the President talked about Social Security, the more support for his plan declined. According to the Gallup organization, public disapproval of President Bush’s handling of Social Security rose by 16 points from 48 to 64 percent between his State of the Union address and June.
By early summer the initiative was on life support, with congressional Democrats uniformly opposed and Republicans in disarray. After Hurricane Katrina inundated what remained of the President’s support, congressional leaders quietly pulled the plug. By October, even the President had to acknowledge that his effort had failed.
Going after the big entitlements regardless of political peril was the Great White Whale for conservatives long before W.’s face-plant. As Josh Barro notes, defending Social Security and Medicare was a big part of the formula by which Bill Clinton survived a historic 1994 midterm drubbing, ran circles around Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, and got himself reelected in 1996. In 1981, the Reagan budget, which rolled through Congress and revolutionized fiscal policy, notably did not include the big changes in retirement programs that the president’s advisers had originally planned. And for anyone harboring residual doubt that going after Social Security and Medicare is a political loser for the GOP, just go back to the 1964 presidential election, when Barry Goldwater called for making Social Security voluntary and interrupted his campaign to vote against the original Medicare legislation.
Why do Republicans keep coming back to this poisoned well? There are three basic reasons. First, for a political party whose main preoccupation for decades has been cutting taxes on the wealthy, “financing” tax cuts with “savings” from the single largest segment of the non-defense budget is an inevitable temptation. Second, Social Security and Medicare are universal programs that benefit all retirees, from the very wealthy to the very poor. From the conservative point of view, these programs embroil a majority of the American people in the seductive wiles of the welfare state. Third, Social Security and Medicare are the legacy programs of the New Deal and Great Society initiatives, respectively, which are progressive achievements that conservatives feel compelled to unravel whenever and however they can.
Eventually, American conservatives may follow their counterparts in other nations by accepting the basic elements of the modern welfare state once and for all and find other objects for their anti-progressive ire. That’s basically what Donald Trump told them to do in his mold-breaking 2016 campaign, in which he focused on culture-war messages and hostility to Washington rather than going after the federal government’s most popular programs (though once in office, even he couldn’t leave the Medicaid program alone).
Most Republicans, however, can’t stop going after Social Security and Medicare, and Joe Biden has given every indication that he’ll make them pay a price for their stubbornness. If he uses this issue to beat them in 2024, it’s not like they haven’t been warned.
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