early and often

The Republican Enemies of Social Security and Medicare Haven’t Given Up Yet

Pence and Ryan joined at the hip on entitlement reform. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Historians may adjudge the 118th Congress as the best of times and the worst of times for entitlement reformers, the folk who live to “fix” Social Security and Medicare via simple cuts, spending limits, or the restructuring of benefits or beneficiaries to reduce costs for the federal government. On the one hand, now that there is a Democrat in the White House, the GOP has rediscovered the horror of debts and deficits it manifested throughout the Obama administration and then forgot all about the moment Donald Trump took office. The Republican takeover of the House, moreover, has given the GOP a potential point of leverage for trying to get Democrats to provide bipartisan cover for extremely unpopular entitlement cuts that Republicans don’t want to own.

But long-held GOP fantasies of fiscal hawkery dissipated after President Biden called out congressional Republicans for their malign intent toward Social Security and Medicare in his State of the Union address and trapped them into swearing off cuts in these programs altogether. It took a while, but under intense pressure, even Senator Rick Scott, whose proposal to sunset all federal laws and programs every five years was the immediate object of Biden’s finger-pointing, revised his “rescue plan” for the country to exempt these huge retirement programs from his sunset proposal. And if Biden’s threats to go medieval in 2024 to protect Social Security and Medicare didn’t do the trick, his once — and perhaps future — general-election opponent, Donald J. Trump, piled on with his own threats to attack fellow Republicans who took that fateful fork in the road toward entitlement reform. (Specifically, Trump threw a brushback pitch at Ron DeSantis, who loved him some entitlement-bashing while a House backbencher during the Obama years.)

Thanks to this presidential and ex-presidential squeeze play, you can see the handwriting on the wall that Social Security and Medicare cuts and other hostile “reforms” are not going to be fully on the table in the 2024 election cycle. But there are some dissenters from political common sense on this subject. One is predictable: former House Speaker and chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan. From the Washington Post:

“Biden and Trump — and I lump them in the same sentence — Biden and Trump are doing the opposite of leadership,” Ryan said in an interview Tuesday. “They’re trying to scare people, and they’re playing political demagoguery with one of the most important issues facing our country this century …”

Ryan said he was frustrated that some of his fellow Republicans were walking away from an issue that they rallied around during his time as a top-ranking member of the House.

“Do I think our party has done some backsliding? Yes, because of Trump populism,” Ryan said in a telephone interview. “But I still believe there’s a very big core in our party that understands the magnitude of this issue, wants to be responsible and fix this problem before it gets ugly and out of control.”

That’s probably true. But there’s not a “very big core” of Republicans that wants to go out on the campaign trail to defend entitlement reform. And the man whom Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce derisively labeled a “zombie-eyed granny starver” should know that pretty well. He was, after all, an architect of the congressional vehicle for George W. Bush’s politically disastrous 2005 plan to partially privatize Social Security. And when he was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, he first tried pretending his serial plans to convert Medicare from a defined-benefit public program into subsidies for private health insurance were motivated by a desire to “save” the program — before pivoting to a claim that the real threat to Medicare was Obamacare. It was all rather feckless.

More surprising than Ryan’s stubborn support for austerity-based “reforms” is what a probable candidate for president next year, former vice-president Mike Pence, is saying now, according to the Post:

On Wednesday, former vice president Mike Pence, who served in the House with Ryan, said cuts to Medicare and Social Security should be “on the table for the long term,” breaking with Trump as he considers a run for president in 2024. “We’re looking at a debt crisis in this country over the next 25 years that’s driven by entitlements, and nobody in Washington, D.C., wants to talk about it,” Pence said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

World to Mike Pence: “Nobody wants to talk about it” because entitlement reform is roundly and redundantly unpopular, as you will be, too, if you continue down this road to hell. Trump, Pence’s former God, understood that, which is why he threw attacks on Social Security and Medicare out of the GOP playbook during his presidency and why he’s going to tear Pence a new one now if he becomes enough of a threat in 2024 to even merit a nasty nickname.

So why is Pence inviting his own evisceration? As I noted recently, Republicans are (often privately) addicted to entitlement reform as a way to finance the tax cuts and defense-spending hikes they value most. They also regard Social Security and Medicare as infernal inducements that have ensnared middle-class Americans into support for the welfare state. So the big retirement programs offend Republicans like Pence morally (and the man is a big-time moralist) as well as fiscally.

As a House veteran, Pence has voted for so many of Ryan’s budgets that perhaps he can’t shake the association and may as well harvest the benefit from Republicans still angry at Trump for abandoning the old-time fiscal religion of the GOP. Personally, I see no big percentage in offending both MAGA zealots and old folks, but then again, Mike Pence reportedly views himself as being guided by God. Perhaps he believes the Almighty is secretly an entitlement reformer.

The Enemies of Social Security and Medicare Haven’t Given Up