The Indictment-- And More
Jonathan Chait’s column on how Trump is using DeSantis’ record on Social Security and Medicare to destroy his rival for the Republican nomination is fine, although he should have emphasized something that he barely glossed over, namely that DeSantis is far from alone in his desire to raise the retirement age to 70, privatize Social Security and unwind Medicare. These are the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress. Raising the retirement age may be opposed by most voters and even most Republican voters, but corporate conservatives in both establishment parties are trying to figure out how to do it without being blamed. Senate Democrats have Maine independent Angus King negotiating with the Republicans for them so that when it backfires they’ll have a thin veneer of deniability. But the point is that the DeSantis policies Trump is attacking are the stated policies of most of his own party’s elected officials.
Trump has said that “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. He also had strong plans for cutting Medicare and still does.” Trump knows what kind of alarm bells that sets off among MAGA voters, who are no longer just country club suburbanites but are now the white— and increasingly not only white— working class. For them, especially riled by Trump, destroying Social Security and Medicare creates pure panic. “DeSantis’s record on Social Security and Medicare is his biggest liability by far,” wrote Chait. “More than Ukraine or his lack of charisma, retirement programs are an issue that have the potential to destroy his candidacy… Those positions are absolutely toxic— 88 percent of the country opposes cutting either program.
Trump’s line of attack is going to create three compounding problems for DeSantis. First, it is going to drive a wedge between him and the electorate. While conservative-movement elites would desperately like to cut, privatize, or do away with the New Deal and its legacy programs, their voters have never shared those desires. Eighty-four percent of Republicans oppose cutting Medicare or Social Security. The Republican donor class may appreciate DeSantis’s commitment to small-government principle, but his stance will be indefensible in a primary.
Second, even if DeSantis survives these attacks, Trump’s commitment to airing them in the primary will damage DeSantis’s standing in the general election. Indeed, Trump is all but openly handing material to Democrats to use against DeSantis. “You know, when they have policy in their head, they never change,” he said. “They may say they change, but they always go back to it.” When DeSantis inevitably insists he no longer holds the positions he endorsed a decade ago, Democrats will play these clips of Trump explaining why DeSantis can’t be trusted.
Third, by damaging DeSantis’s electability, Trump is undercutting the main rationale for DeSantis’s nomination. By and large, Republicans like Trump. Even most Republicans who have some misgivings about his character, and perhaps fretted over the insurrection at the end of his time in office, consider him to have been a good president. They want to move on because Trump lost and DeSantis is a winner.
Chait’s first “line of attack” warning comes closest to the danger Trump is putting all Republicans in. In writing that “it is going to drive a wedge between him and the electorate and that while conservative-movement elites would desperately like to cut, privatize, or do away with the New Deal and its legacy programs, their voters have never shared those desires,” he is probably referring to the donor class (“elites”) rather than to the members of Congress who have the same position— and in many cases, the same record— that DeSantis does.
10 years and 10 days ago, 104 House Republicans voted to turn Medicare into a voucher program. DeSantis was one of them (as was Mike Pompeo). Other current Members of Congress who voted for it include now-senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Bill Cassidy (R-LA— currently fighting to raise the retirement age)— James Lankford (R-OK) and Tom Cotton (R-AR). Other prominent right-wing luminaries who voted for it and are still in the House includes Steve Scalise (R-LA), Gym Jordan (R-OH), Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Jeff Duncan (R-SC), Richard Hudson (R-NC), Pete Sessions (R-TX), Michael McCaul (R-TX), Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), Roger Williams (R-TX), Dave Schweikert (R-AZ), Chuck Fleischmann (TN), Bill Huizenga (R-MI), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Mike Rogers (R-AL), and Thomas Massie (R-KY).
Last year NRSC chairman Rick Scott (R-FL) released an official NRSC agenda calling for sunsetting all federal programs every five years unless Congress explicitly votes to keep them going, endangering Social Security and Medicare. That may have frightening Mitch McConnell but at the same time the right-wing Republican Study Committee, released its 2023 budget proposal that would raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 and the Social Security eligibility age from 65 to 69. Trump saw an opportunity to play the populist card against his own party and put up a video in which he said “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security.” No wonder Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney hate him so vehemently!
Yesterday the New York grand jury voted to indict Trump. Before that ABC News’ Tal Axelrod reported on how this is another way Trump is endangering congressional Republicans. Axelrod wrote that Republicans hope [potential] charges against Trump "won't wreak havoc on down-ballot races next year but are warning of dire consequences should candidates mishandle an unprecedented indictment… Republican candidates seeking statewide, House and local offices will likely be inundated with questions over his run-- while trying to get their own messaging to voters. ‘Any Republican who's not prepared to answer a question about the indictment, if it should come, and not prepared to pivot away from questions about Trump and back to the economy, crime and Biden's shortcomings is going to have a really hard time,’ said one GOP strategist who has worked on Senate campaigns… Avoiding the issue altogether or altering one's message for different audiences may be nonviable given the extent to which an indictment would be covered in the press, forcing candidates to address the issue head on. ‘You're gonna get asked about it. You need to decide what your position is on it. And you need to articulate it and stick to it,’ said one strategist currently working on down-ballot races. ‘If you waffle on it, you're not going to pick up any votes on the other side, and you're gonna frustrate your voters.’ But getting mired in the details of Trump's alleged affair with Daniels could alienate swing voters, and waffling on an indictment could anger a fiercely pro-Trump grassroots, leaving candidates to walk a tightrope over how and how much to address any charges."
Already, Republicans are flashing frustration over swirling controversies around Trump.
At a House GOP retreat earlier this month, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Calif., accused reporters of forcing news cycle surrounding Trump, arguing his conference is focused on policy.
"We're not talking about this in our conference; you're asking about it," McCarthy said after repeated questions over Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's investigation. When asked if Trump is still the leader of the Republican party, McCarthy fired back, "In the press room, for all of you, he is."
Republicans' possible headache over Trump's legal entanglements could worsen if other investigations into the former president escalate.
Trump is facing probes into his efforts to overturn his 2020 loss in Georgia, possession of classified documents after leaving the White House and business practices, all of which operatives suggested could be more politically damaging than the Stormy Daniels case, which relies on facts that have been known for about seven years.
"If he's the nominee next year at this time, and the nominee despite three or four criminal indictments hanging over his head, absolutely, that puts the entire map in jeopardy," said the strategist who worked on Senate campaigns.
Still, any playbook could end up off base, with certain controversies, like the Jan. 6 riot, sticking to Trump and others, like the Access Hollywood tape, falling away, without any apparent pattern.
"I think the last time you and I talked was about the insurrection stuff, and I was like, 'this stuff's going away,' and it clearly didn't," said one GOP consultant working with down-ballot candidates, citing Republicans' underperformance in the 2022 midterms. "Maybe for me being a consultant … I'm hoping this kind of stuff goes away more than it actually does."
The two dozen House Republicans— all in need of swing voters to win in their districts— who this issue is going to hurt most are:
John James (MI)- won with 48.8%
Lauren Boebert (CO)- won with 50.08%
John Duarte (CA)- won with 50.21%
Mike Lawler (NY)- won with 50.23%
Zach Nunn (IA)- won with 50.3%
David Schweikert (AZ)- won with 50.44%
Brandon Williams (NY)- won with 50.49%
Juan Ciscomani (AZ)- won with 50.7%
Lori Chavez-DeRemer (OR)- won with 51.0%
Marc Molinaro (NY)- won with 51.1%
Don Bacon (NE)- won with 51.3%
Tom Kean (NJ)- won with 51.4%
David Valadao (CA)- won with 51.5%
Donald Bacon (NE)- won with 51.5%
Jen Kiggans (VA)- won with 51.9%
Anthony D’Esposito (NY)- won with 51.8%
Kevin Calvert (CA)- won with 52.3%
Michelle Steel (CA)- won with 52.4%
Mike Garcia (CA)- won with 53.2%
Monica De La Cruz (TX)- won with 53.3%
Marionette Miller-Meeks (IA)- won with 53.4%
Kevin Kiley (CA)- won with 53.6%
Scott Perry (PA)- won with 53.8%
Chuck Edwards (NC)- won with 53.8%
Yesterday, before the indictment, I decided that DeSantis won’t run. This morning, post-indictment, I changed my mind back. And this morning, the NY Times reported that Trump’s SuperPAC “has begun running commercials for the first time, with a roughly $1.3 million ad buy on CNN and Fox News for a spot attacking DeSantis. As expected, the ad focuses on DeSantis’ votes on Social Security and Medicare while he was a congressman. He once vocally supported restructuring both programs and raising the retirement age when he was a budget hawk in 2012. It’s a position that Trump has attacked him for relentlessly, and with reason: Such votes have historically been unpopular with seniors, who make up a substantial chunk of the Republican voting base. ‘He’s just not ready to be president,’ the ad narrator intones.”