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Some Republicans Are Foolishly Back To Playing With The Third Rail Of American Politics

Social Security Isn't Safe With Republicans In Office

Biden and Trump have something in common. Being so old, they both understand an old saying: “Social Security is the third rail of American politics.” They understand it and they’re smart enough to stay clear. Conservative ideologues Meatball Ron, Mike Pence and Nikki Haley don’t get it and have all floated proposals to take Social Security benefits away from younger people before they’re old enough to start experiencing the security of the program. Reporting for the Washington Post over the weekend, Jeff Stein wrote that the 3 of them “are pushing for cuts to Social Security benefits that would only affect younger Americans, as the party’s leaders grapple with the explosive politics of the retirement program.” In other words, they’d rather see old people die on the streets than raise taxes on the rich.

Remember, when Social Security was first seriously debated in Congress during the 1930s, there was significant opposition from business interests and the conservative politicians who attended to their needs. The Social Security Act was signed into law by FDR on August 14, 1935, as part of his New Deal initiatives— scornfully brought up last week by Georgia wing nut Marjorie Traitor Greene and subsequently made into an ad for Joe Biden using her own words.

Like the conservatives who voted against it, Greene sees Social Security as socialism. Americans— including Republican voters— overwhelmingly approve of it. And most Americans, by wide margins would prefer to see taxes raised on the wealthy than see the eligibility age increased of benefits decreased.

  • Increasing taxes on households with over $400,000 annual income- 58%

  • Rising the eligibility age from 67 to 70- 10%

  • Reducing Social Security benefits- 6%

The conservative perspective has always been that Social Security represented government overreach into private affairs and that it would undermine individual responsibility. They argued that it could create a "welfare state" and discourage self-reliance among citizens. And, of course, they were concerned about the financial burden the program would place on employers and the potential impact on the economy.

After conservatives were routed and FDR signed the legislation, he ran for reelection. He beat Republican Alf Landon in a landslide— every state but Maine and Vermont, 27,747,636 (60.8%) to 16,679,543 (36.5%), 523 electoral votes to 8. Some of the poorer states understood better than anyone else just what that meant. FDR won South Carolina with 98.6% of the vote, won Mississippi with 97.1% and won Louisiana with 88.8%. Issaquena County (MI), Horry County (SC), Lancaster County (SC) and Greensville County (VA) each gave FDR 100% of their vote. Democrats did well in congressional races that year as well. They won 334 seats in the House, leaving the GOP with just 88 seats. And in the Senate that year the Democrats netted 5 more seats, giving them. Total of 75 against the Republicans’ 17 seats. It wasn’t only Social Security and the Republicans won’t be left with 88 House seats and 17 Senate seats if they start talking up DeSantis’ plan, but they’ll sure lose their House majority and… bye-bye Ted Cruz (TX) and Josh Hawley (MO) and maybe even Marsha Blackburn (TN) and Rick Scott (FL).

Stein wrote that “In comments on Sunday as well as in interviews earlier this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said Social Security will need to be revamped— but not for people who are near or in retirement. Former vice president Mike Pence and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley have taken similar positions since launching their presidential campaigns. From the earliest days of his 2016 run, Trump has vowed not to touch either Social Security or Medicare— a break from GOP orthodoxy that has shifted the party’s views— and has more recently hammered DeSantis for wanting to cut the program.”

Did DeSantis think people are morons and don’t understand the intergenerational bond that Social Security is based on when he told Fox News that he has no intention of cutting benefits to seniors? Perhaps he doesn’t understand that everyone knows that they’re going to be seniors one day too— only they’ll be seniors without Social Security if there's ever a Meatball sitting in the Oval Office. “Talking about making changes for people in their 30s and their 40s so the program’s viable— that’s a much different thing, and something I think there’s going to need to be discussion on.”

The positions the three Trump rivals are taking suggest that even the fiscally conservative candidates in the GOP presidential primary are reluctant to endorse cutting Social Security for seniors, highlighting just how much the party has shifted on the issue. Former House speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), the party’s 2012 vice-presidential candidate, had led the party in championing budget blueprints that would have entailed significant cuts to both Social Security and Medicare.
As the Republican Party becomes increasingly reliant on older voters for support and as Trump continues to exert heavy influence over the party’s beliefs, GOP policymakers have followed the former president’s lead in steering clear of proposals to cut the program, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) ruling that out in debt ceiling negotiations earlier this year with the White House.
But concentrating potential cuts on the young, as the Trump challengers have proposed, has its downsides as well. The candidates’ posture risks alienating young voters who have already become increasingly alienated from the Republican Party. And cutting benefits for younger people leaves the bulk of the problem unresolved, experts say, given that the Social Security funding crisis is projected to arrive decades before millennials receive their first checks.
“It clearly would not address the shortfall, or the short- to medium-term problem we’re going to have in 10 years or less,” said Howard Gleckman, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.
Economists of both parties agree that Social Security and Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly, face funding crises if Congress does not act to shore up their finances somehow, either by reducing benefits or raising taxes. If no reforms are enacted, Social Security benefits for an estimated 60 million people will be cut by 20 percent starting in 2033, according to the most recent report of the Boards of Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Medicare also faces automatic benefit cuts as soon as 2031, the report says.
President Biden has proposed increasing taxes on the rich and businesses to prevent Medicare from running out of funds. But the latest White House budget does not propose a solution for extending Social Security. Numerous congressional Democrats have called for trillions in new taxes to avoid the Social Security shortfall, as well.
Policy experts have long said it will probably take a mixture of reduced spending and higher taxes to address the looming funding shortage facing Social Security and Medicare. Social Security’s old age and survivors insurance trust fund is expected to only be able to pay 77 percent of benefits in 2033, which would probably lead to automatic reductions in payments. People in their forties are still more than two decades away from receiving Social Security benefits.
The comments from DeSantis and Pence suggest that some Republicans have “not updated their talking points from the 1990s,” said Brian Riedl, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank. Thirty years ago, Riedl said, it would have been possible to argue for resolving the funding shortfall only by limiting benefits for future recipients. But given that the enormous baby boomer generation is now at retirement age, exempting them from cuts would still leave the program in crisis.
“I get the politics of not wanting to lead with, ‘We will cut seniors,’” Riedl said. “But it might be better to say nothing than to offer an unpopular approach that doesn’t even avoid a debt crisis because it would be implemented far too late.”
DeSantis’s message will probably soon be tested. Trump has released video messages tying DeSantis to House Republicans who wanted to cut Social Security and for pushing to raise the retirement age when the Florida governor served in Congress, although Trump has also expressed support in the past for raising the retirement age.
“Donald Trump ruled Social Security and other benefits out of bounds politically” for Republican politicians, said Bill Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “But there are still Republicans, including some leading Republicans, who understand we won’t make serious progress on our fiscal problems until everything’s on the table. They’re trying to open that discussion, without it immediately being shut down.”

Last February the White House issued a carefully reserached fact sheet on congressional Republicans who have proposed cutting Social Security and Medicare:

American voters understand what it means when congressional Republicans talk about “sunsetting” Social Security and Medicare. Over 70% of House Republicans are part of the right-wing Republican Study Committee which released a 2024 budget, in which they do cut both Social Security (by increasing the retirement age) and Medicare (by turning it into a voucher system that would remove the guarantee for seniors to have affordable access to healthcare). And in return… the Republicans are offering tax cuts that would benefit the wealthy. McCarthy has begged them to lay off until after they win the House back in November.

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