In the prospective 2024 nominating contest, some GOP wannabes are serving up straight talk about the need to fix Medicare and Social Security, even though Donald Trump banished entitlement reform from Republican doctrine in 2016. These fiscally sober, and actually conservative, Republicans aren’t likely to win the nomination, and they’re making Trump giddy. But they could also put House Republicans and Ron DeSantis in a jam.
Nikki Haley, who announced her candidacy last month, and likely contenders Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, have all said the looming insolvency of these programs – which take up 30% of the federal budget – must be addressed.
House Republicans vowing to find $130 billion in spending cuts had initially placed entitlements squarely on the negotiating table, but removed them after Trump and President Biden united against reform. Biden taunted congressional Republicans at his State of the Union, saying it was their “dream” to cut both popular programs, which was met with boos. Trump has released a video warning congressional Republicans not to cut “one penny” from either safety net program in their negotiations over the debt ceiling. After both events, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made it explicit: In their hunt for savings they will look elsewhere and leave both programs alone.
“Clean” increases in the debt ceiling passed during Trump’s presidency, while the debt increased by 39%. House Freedom Caucus members, who rode the Tea Party wave and sought drastic spending cuts for years, went all in on the Trump spending bender. One of those Freedom Caucus members who went on to serve as both budget director and then chief of staff to Trump – Mick Mulvaney – told The Dispatch, “The truth of the matter is that the first two years of the Trump administration, when the Republicans had the House and the Senate, we raised spending faster than the last couple of years of the Obama administration.”
Current Freedom Caucus members, who have relocated their fiscal rectitude, have insisted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy pledge not to bring up a clean debt ceiling increase for a vote because there is a dire need to curb spending now.
Since a debt crisis cannot be avoided without curbing mandatory spending, some Republicans are still willing to acknowledge the third rail, and Haley did so last week. “It’s unrealistic to say you’re not going to touch entitlements,” she said, proposing a new system for younger generations while leaving the program intact for current recipients. Pence has warned about a debt crisis coming in the next 25 years that is “driven by entitlements” and said, “The truth is we’ve got to have that conversation.” Pompeo recently told RCP that “the next Republican president has to be more serious than previous Republican presidents have ever been about getting our fiscal house in order,” and that entitlements must be put “on a sustainable trajectory.”
Trump would like nothing better than to be the only person in the primary field opposing reforms to Social Security and Medicare – to claim to be their sole defender against some establishment cabal threatening benefits to the elderly. Even though those Republicans are not recommending any near-term cuts or changes, Trump has never let facts or the truth get in his way.
What is true: We are headed for a debt crisis; Social Security and Medicare need reform; and Democrats are not interested in addressing debt reduction. Also true: The pre-Trump Republican Party used to be committed to limited government and debt reduction. Even now, Trump will not brook debate of even reasonable, modest, and interim fixes which could extend solvency.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month, Trump said some Republicans wanted to raise the retirement age to 70, 75, or 80 and planned to “cut Medicare to a level that it will no longer be recognizable.”
And since DeSantis remains the biggest threat to Trump winning the nomination, the Florida governor's past support for entitlement reforms is now Trump’s favorite subject. While serving in the House, DeSantis voted for several budget resolutions that would have made changes to the programs, including phasing in the eligibility age to 70.
DeSantis is trying to fend off Trump and recently said on Fox News: “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans. I think that’s pretty clear.” But Trump claims DeSantis wants to “cut” the programs and called him “a wheelchair-over-the-cliff kind of guy, just like his hero, failed politician Paul Ryan.” Trump was referring to ads Democrats ran against the former House Speaker’s plans to privatize the programs a decade ago, in which someone who resembled Ryan was seen pushing an old woman in a wheelchair off a cliff.
Sen. Mike Rounds, who is at work on such reforms as a member of the Senate working group on entitlements, said it was “very unfortunate,” that Trump attacked DeSantis over the issue.
“We need an adult as president who is going to take on the tough challenges, the tough problems, and be prepared to share with the American people how serious it is. That we use facts. And not scare tactics,” he told Politico.
Yet Rounds may not get that leader in DeSantis either. The governor may bend on entitlement reform, just like he did on support for Ukraine, abandoning policies he believes in to win the nomination.
House Republicans are already divided among themselves over their coming budget battle with the Biden administration. And there is no consensus about what to do next spring – rally behind Trump for the nomination, or follow the lead of House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Roy and endorse DeSantis and his record of support for privatizing entitlement programs?
What all Republicans can count on is that Trump will distort and demagogue whatever any other candidate says anyway. And it’s more than likely granny will vote for him.