A friend sent me an article from back in March 2016 which provides some interesting perspective on the current resurgence of Social Security politics and the various Republicans vying to be the “post-Trump” candidate for President while Trump refuses to leave the stage. It also has particular relevance to Ron DeSantis, which we’ll get to in a moment.
But first some context.
The piece is a Times article from March 2016. So it is early in the Trump takeover of the GOP but when it still wasn’t entirely clear he’d be able to pull it off. The subtext of the article is that while many Republicans focused either on the power of Trump’s chaotic personality or the red meat of immigrant bans and xenophobia to explain his success, there was something else in the mix. There was a whole population of people who had closed the door on ever supporting Democrats but were left entirely cold by the GOP’s reflexive focus on tax cuts, free trade and cutting “entitlements.”
I’ve always been and remain skeptical of Donald Trump’s purported opposition to cuts to Social Security and Medicare. As we know, the indifference or opposition to upper income tax cuts went right out the window once he was in office. More importantly, that opposition was not so much ideological as an indication of his good antennae for what was good for Donald Trump. You couldn’t live in the mass market real world and not get that cuts to these hugely important and popular programs were crazy in political terms. You can come up with ways to hide what you’re doing. You can play with the language. But people like and take Social Security and Medicare for granted. If you’re just in it for your own popularity and power, of course you oppose cuts to these programs.
In many of the areas where Trump gained his biggest numbers, big percentages of the population was on Social Security disability payments, (a big part of Social Security mostly ignored in political discussions) let alone the population of seniors on Social Security and Medicare. Why were Republicans so focused on cutting Social Security or reducing benefits?
Remember that we’ve mentioned that Obama was at least open to changing the formula for annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustments as part of a budget-balancing “grand bargain” with Republicans. That’s a cut, however you want to explain or describe it. There’s a whole debate over whether the Obama White House actually favored this or just put it forward as a point of negotiation. But for present purposes that’s not relevant. Here’s a part of the Times article with an anecdote about Ron DeSantis, then still a Freedom Caucus House firebreather who, as I noted on Tuesday, had voted for every kind of Social Security cut in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
In early 2014, a group of neighbors from a Florida mobile home community called Carriage Cove, near Daytona, took seats in a town-hall-style meeting with Representative Ron DeSantis, a Republican. It was a mix of Republicans and Democrats, almost all of them seniors living on fixed incomes.
They had come to ask Mr. DeSantis why he had put his name on a letter urging Republican leaders to take up Mr. Obama’s offer of a deal to overhaul Social Security. Mr. DeSantis seemed caught off guard, neighbors who attended the meeting recalled. He did not necessarily agree with everything in the letter, he told them. When they persisted, Mr. DeSantis left, explaining that he was not feeling well.
Begging off about being sick sounds like classic DeSantis. But we can see the kernel of what may be at the heart of the 2024 primary campaign right there.
One other point the Times article makes is that this state of affairs was accelerated, though certainly not created, by the fall out of Citizens United, which allowed Republican politics to increasingly be funded by a small number of billionaires who were deeply bought into the libertarian model of supply-side tax cuts, free trade and gutting social insurance. In many ways Trump wrecked what those folks were trying to create. But they all quickly jumped on his bandwagon once he was in charge. The push to remove him from the scene doesn’t come only from the billionaire class. But it’s certainly where the money for the push comes from.
I think we see something more than that too.
As I’ve noted, the Republican Study Committee put forward pretty much the same budget blueprint for 2023 as they had back in 2013, 2014 and 2015. We talk about Trump taking over and remaking the GOP. That is true in a number of ways. But on numerous key points it’s more a takeover by The Crazy, various elements of jingoistic nationalism and attacks on the rule of law. The deep focus on gutting social insurance programs is there just as clearly as it was a decade ago. In that way the DNA isn’t nearly as changed as is often suggested. Nor is the focus on immigration or the latest gender-based moral panic of the day very new. This was always the model: a mass party fueled by the culture war and an elite party focused on tax cuts and austerity.