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DeSantis Is Letting Trump Crush Him on Retirement Programs

Photo: Ben Hendren/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As a young conservative congressman, Ron DeSantis supported Social Security and Medicare “reforms” that really amounted to benefit cuts or deferrals. There was nothing unique about this; most Republicans shared this stance before Donald Trump’s semi-hostile takeover of the party. But now that DeSantis is preparing to run for president, his support for gutting wildly popular federal retirement programs is a huge liability — and the Florida governor has already shown he lacks the political instincts to mitigate the damage.

DeSantis could have accepted the new political reality and simply flip-flopped on retirement programs like the current Republicans in Congress who insist they wouldn’t even think of messing with Social Security and Medicare. Instead, DeSantis has let Trump pummel him on the issue with constant sniping about his untrustworthiness on the subject. As my colleague Jonathan Chait recently noted:

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.”

Now, DeSantis’s surrogates have begun to fire back, mostly deploying the “So’s your old man” argument that Trump has hinted at support for “entitlement reform” in the past, too. The governor finally responded himself in a Friday interview with Newsmax, but his answer basically amounted to whining about Trump sounding like a Democrat. As The Hill reports:

DeSantis said in the interview that Republicans needed to be able to discuss changes to the programs, but he blasted Trump for resorting to “Democrat tactics.”

“Clearly, nobody has ever proposed to do anything to affect the current senior citizens,” he said.

A pro-DeSantis super PAC last month launched a TV ad defending him on Social Security and going after Trump for his attacks. The interview from DeSantis echoed some of the same framing from the ad.

“Donald Trump is being attacked by a Democrat prosecutor in New York,” the narrator in the ad released last month said. “So why is he spending millions attacking the Republican governor of Florida? Trump’s stealing pages from the Biden-Pelosi playbook.”

This interview only underscores that Trump understands the politics of retirement programs and DeSantis really doesn’t. It’s true that defending Social Security and Medicare from endless Republican efforts to cut, cap, or sunset various elements of the programs has been a favorite Democratic tactic dating back to LBJ’s savaging of Barry Goldwater in 1964. That’s because these programs are extremely popular, exactly as they are, with voters at every age level and across party lines. The evidence is overwhelming and universal. A March Ipsos poll showed 88 percent of Americans, including 84 percent of Republicans, opposing spending cuts in Social Security or Medicare. A Kaiser tracking poll the same month showed 78 percent of Republicans having a favorable opinion of Social Security and 79 percent of Republicans feeling the same way about Medicare. Raising the retirement age is unpopular too: According to a recent Quinnipiac survey, 78 percent of Americans (including 77 percent of Republicans) oppose that “reform.”

Republicans often try to avoid enraging seniors by proposing Social Security or Medicare spending cuts that are phased in for future beneficiaries. That’s why DeSantis said he hadn’t supported anything that would “affect the current senior citizens.” But this “reform” isn’t popular either. George W. Bush’s 2005 proposal to partially privatize Social Security benefits for future retirees was rejected by a nearly 4-1 margin in an ABC–Washington Post poll at that time. Public opinion on the issues hasn’t changed; a March Fox News poll found 82 percent of respondents opposing Social Security cuts limited to future retirees. And that same poll showed Republican support for measures to subsidize Social Security and Medicare to maintain current benefits strengthening significantly during the past ten years.

So why do Republican politicians (other than Trump) keep getting this wrong? The problem is that conservatives with any sort of intellectual bent tend to think of Social Security and Medicare as vestiges of the New Deal and Great Society initiatives, which they deeply despise. As Chait explained, that very much describes DeSantis:

His first book articulates a theory that has circulated among elite right-wing economic elites for decades: that redistribution through taxes and spending via the ballot box poses an existential threat to liberty. His devotion to that theory helped drive him to take positions (in favor of cutting and privatizing Social Security and Medicare) that now constitute perhaps his biggest political liabilities.

But rank-and-file Republicans don’t share this view; they tend to think of Social Security and Medicare not as redistributive or “welfare” programs but as earned benefits. That’s partly because they contribute to these programs via payroll taxes (though Medicare in particular is heavily subsidized via general revenues) and partly because they view these benefits as a reward for a lifetime of work. The psychological connection between previous labor and future benefits also helps insulate retirement programs from the kind of conservative hostility that leads them to demand work requirements for beneficiaries of most other government programs; in this case, the work has presumably already been done.

You have to be an ideologue like DeSantis to defy this remarkably consistent positive feeling toward Social Security and Medicare among Republican voters, particularly on an issue that most impacts the portion of the electorate most likely to vote in both primaries and general elections. Trump isn’t bothered by any need for intellectual consistency; he sees a political opportunity and demagogues it without hesitation. And that’s one major reason why he’s now comfortably leading DeSantis for the 2024 GOP nomination and may actually be more electable.

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DeSantis Is Letting Trump Crush Him on Retirement Programs