Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Opinion | Sorry, Republicans, no one should trust your word on Social Security

Opinion | Sorry, Republicans, no one should trust your word on Social Security


“I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare,” President Biden said during a speech in Tampa on Thursday. “If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare.”

After Republicans’ heckling of Biden on this topic at the State of the Union, the White House clearly thinks it has struck political gold and has sent the president out to keep up this drumbeat.

When Biden, referring to a plan released last year by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), told Congress and the nation that “some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset” — then emphasized, “I’m not saying it’s the majority” — Republicans erupted in catcalls, fist-shaking and cries of “Liar!”

Their rage was powerful enough to make you suspect it might be sincere. And if their claim is that no more than a few Republicans agree with Scott’s suggestion to have every federal program disappear every five years unless it is reauthorized by Congress, they’re right.

But if Republicans want the public to believe that their passion for defending those popular safety-net programs should be beyond doubt, they are on shaky ground.

Even if Biden might sometimes exaggerate what his opponents believe, this debate carries with it a history and a context that make it hard for Republicans to claim they are being unfairly maligned.

This dates all the way back to the beginning of Social Security during the New Deal era, and Medicare (along with Medicaid) as part of the Great Society. All these programs were opposed by conservatives; one Republican senator thundered, before the bill passed in 1935, that Social Security would “end the progress of a great country and bring its people to the level of the average European.” Likewise, Republicans fought Medicare relentlessly; Ronald Reagan said in the early 1960s that if the government were to give seniors health coverage, their grandchildren would have to be instructed about the bygone time “when men were free.”

In the decades since, Republicans have periodically attempted to limit, cut, restrict or privatize all these programs. In 2005, President George W. Bush wanted to shift younger workers into private accounts rather than traditional Social Security. It was a bad policy idea for multiple reasons, but politically it was a disaster; after the public recoiled, Republicans in Congress refused to get behind the plan.

For years, as the GOP’s chief budget advocate in the House, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) proposed plans to move Medicare toward privatization. Though his ideas never became law, many Republicans supported his proposals, including some considering a run for president in 2024.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the most prominent potential GOP contender, voted as a member of Congress to limit cost-of-living increases for Social Security, privatize Medicare by turning it into a “premium support” program, and raise the retirement age for both. DeSantis also made comments supporting partial privatization of Social Security.

And after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Republicans mounted a campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would have done away with the law’s expansion of Medicaid that had extended coverage to more than 20 million people. They failed by a single vote.

The most positive spin Republicans can put on this record is that, over and over, many of them have tried to undermine these programs, but the party as a whole usually gets cold feet in the end because political self-preservation wins out over ideology.

But their ideological perspective is clear: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the embodiment of Big Government, massive programs that provide individual benefits and encourage people to rely on Washington. It’s no mystery why conservatives don’t like them.

Yes, it’s true that Trump, who has few real policy convictions, repeatedly said as a candidate that he would never cut Social Security or Medicare. And just recently he warned Republicans not to advocate cuts to the programs.

But Trump tried to do exactly that as president. And in a recent speech to an industry group, his former vice president, Mike Pence, revived the idea of prodding private Americans toward privatized Social Security accounts, which Pence described as replacing “the New Deal with a better deal.”

Today, House Republicans are circling the idea of cuts to Social Security and Medicare as they look for ways to slash government spending.

Republicans will ask that we put aside their historical opposition and ideological hostility toward these programs, and focus instead on what they’re saying now. The last part isn’t an unfair demand; once they figure out what they actually want to do, their proposal should be taken seriously.

The trouble is, Republicans haven’t earned a whole lot of trust when it comes to programs that were created by Democrats, and that have been sustained and defended by Democrats in the face of decades of Republican attacks. It’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt. But if they keep working at it, maybe one day we’ll be able to believe they love the safety net as much as they claim they do.

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