The Republican Party Can’t Figure Out What To Say About Medicare, Social Security

Mitch McConnell, Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, Rick Scott, Mike Pence. TPM Illustration/Getty Images
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“He is promising not to reform entitlements. So is Trump, by the way. We have these leaders who are saying ‘I am not going to do anything to stop the debt crisis in this country.’” 

The young gun is older now, and has been out of power for about five years. But as former House Speaker Paul Ryan critiqued the leaders of both parties on CNBC last week, he sounded much the same as he did in the 2010s, when his brand of debt hawkery and push to privatize Social Security and Medicare were very much in vogue.  

His consistency throws into stark relief how much the politics of the programs, which undergird much of the United States’ social safety net (particularly for older adults), have become fraught for his party, sparking internecine warfare as Republicans try to find a viable place to land. 

Donald Trump, both fairly uninterested in policy and avidly attuned to what plays well with his base, helped expand the chasm as he ran hard on not cutting either program in 2016, putting him at odds with his competitors. Trump’s budgets while president would nevertheless go on to quietly suggest cuts to the programs. 

Trump’s running the same play this time around, walloping Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) with his past support for privatizing social security, Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan and raising the retirement age for both programs.

DeSantis has griped that Trump is deploying “Democrat attacks.” Trump has gleefully called his competitor a “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy.”

Other 2024 hopefuls former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and former Vice President Mike Pence (R) sound much more Ryanesque, both suggesting that the programs must be changed.

“There’s a schism between the populist wing and the free market wing,” Timothy McBride, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, told TPM. 

While Trump and DeSantis may not have experienced earnest changes of heart, and are instead jockeying to find the politically popular position ahead of the primary election, the rhetoric is a political sea change reflecting the priorities of a reshaped party recognizing a reshaped base. 

“They’re focused on getting books banned, emphasizing pro-life issues, going to war with Mickey Mouse,” Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, told TPM.

Fiscal conservative wonkishness is out; boycotting Bud Light is in. 

Look at the reaction earlier this year when Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), trying to paint himself as an old school, small government conservative, put out a plan that would have sunsetted Medicare and Social Security every five years sans congressional renewal. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), once a key lieutenant in then-President George W. Bush’s 2005 barnstorming to privatize Social Security, publicly admonished Scott and disavowed the proposal. Scott was ultimately browbeaten into excluding Medicare and Social Security from the sunset plan. 

“All he wants is to get one to two more Republicans elected and get power back,” McBride said of McConnell. “Cutting Social Security is not the way to do that.” 

While both programs have long been immensely popular, a string of Republican failures to cut (and run on cutting) them coupled with Trump’s dominance of the party have zapped the right’s appetite to go after them — at least out loud.

Ryan’s strain of the party still exists, albeit elbowed to the background. Glimpses of their policy proposals can still be seen in elements of the party that seem to operate on autopilot. Earlier this month, the House Republican Study Committee released its budget, complete with the customary cuts to Medicare and Social Security. 

Republicans’ dance to find an agreeable position has only been complicated further by Democrats’ pouncing every time a GOP official expresses interest in touching the programs. It’s been a key White House attack line for months, fodder for rapid response onslaughts and fundraising asks. 

Most prominently, President Joe Biden publicly strong-armed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) into taking the cuts off the table during his 2023 State of the Union. It was a far cry from Obama-era debt ceiling skirmishes, where Republicans demanded (and one time, Democrats acquiesced to) cuts to the programs.  

“My position has been the same for 50 years: Let’s not cut benefits and make sure they’re paid for. That used to be way on the left, and is now in the middle,” Alicia Munnell, a former member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and assistant secretary of the Treasury for economic policy under President Bill Clinton, told TPM. 

Experts pointed out that while Democrats now more firmly hold the line to prevent cuts to Medicare and Social Security, there is also less chatter about expanding the programs than there once was. 

And with real (though solvable) deadlines to either increase the cash flow to the programs or risk benefits being cut — in addition to a Republican Party largely uninterested in tackling such policy problems — the programs may be less exposed to cuts than they were ten years ago…but they don’t seem much closer to getting broadened, either. 

“I’m not sorry Republicans are not beating the drums on cutting Social Security and Medicare,” Richter said. “But it’s gonna be hard to get them to focus on improving these programs.”

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