Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
the national interest

How Trump Can Use Social Security and Medicare to Destroy DeSantis

Forget Ukraine. Retirement programs are the killer weakness.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Donald Trump has unleashed a barrage of charges and insults at Ron DeSantis with varying levels of connection to reality, but one line of attack in particular stands out. Trump is drawing attention to DeSantis’s prior support for cutting and privatizing Social Security and Medicare.

“People are finding out that Ron wanted to destroy Social Security and raise its minimum age to 70, and he fought very hard to do it,” Trump said. “He also had strong plans for cutting Medicare and still does.”

Conservative DeSantis supporters have fretted semi-openly that his handling of the Ukraine war positioned him too far to the right. But DeSantis’s record on Social Security and Medicare is his biggest liability by far. More than Ukraine or his lack of charisma, retirement programs are an issue that have the potential to destroy his candidacy.

Trump’s claims about DeSantis’s positions on retirement programs are correct. DeSantis supported plans to privatize Social Security and Medicare, reduce spending on both programs, and raise the eligibility age. Those positions are absolutely toxic — 88 percent of the country opposes cutting either program.

Trump’s line of attack is going to create three compounding problems for DeSantis. First, it is going to drive a wedge between him and the electorate. While conservative-movement elites would desperately like to cut, privatize, or do away with the New Deal and its legacy programs, their voters have never shared those desires. Eighty-four percent of Republicans oppose cutting Medicare or Social Security. The Republican donor class may appreciate DeSantis’s commitment to small-government principle, but his stance will be indefensible in a primary.

Second, even if DeSantis survives these attacks, Trump’s commitment to airing them in the primary will damage DeSantis’s standing in the general election. Indeed, Trump is all but openly handing material to Democrats to use against DeSantis. “You know, when they have policy in their head, they never change,” he said. “They may say they change, but they always go back to it.” When DeSantis inevitably insists he no longer holds the positions he endorsed a decade ago, Democrats will play these clips of Trump explaining why DeSantis can’t be trusted.

Third, by damaging DeSantis’s electability, Trump is undercutting the main rationale for DeSantis’s nomination. By and large, Republicans like Trump. Even most Republicans who have some misgivings about his character, and perhaps fretted over the insurrection at the end of his time in office, consider him to have been a good president. They want to move on because Trump lost and DeSantis is a winner.

And while DeSantis is probably still a stronger general-election candidate than Trump, his toxic baggage on retirement programs reduces that advantage significantly and may eliminate it altogether. If Joe Biden runs against DeSantis, his campaign will just hammer him relentlessly on this topic.

Republican elites coalesced around DeSantis more than a year ago. At the time, DeSantis’s record on Social Security and Medicare was hiding in plain sight but attracted barely any attention. They picked their non-Trump horse before fully vetting him. He may very well beat Trump and Biden. But even now, conservatives seem not to have absorbed the full implications of the liabilities they are taking on.

How Trump Can Destroy DeSantis on Social Security, Medicare