What the Republican divide over Social Security means for the future of entitlement reform. Our November cover story, “It’s GOP Gut-Check Time.”
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Older voters spiked from 19 percent of the electorate in 2006 to
23 percent in 2010. “Senior voters
seemed motivated by concerns about the health care law and punished incumbent Democrats accordingly,” reported Politico at the time. “Senior voters seemed motivated by concerns about the health care law and punished incumbent Democrats accordingly.” Indeed, the increase from 2006 can’t be entirely explained by senior citizens’ relative conservatism.
That this would complicate GOP efforts to reform Medicare once Paul Ryan — whose basic ideas for Medicare were already contained in his Roadmap plan well before the election — assumed the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee should have been obvious. Republicans had campaigned against the changes the Clinton administration proposed for Medicare as part of their controversial 1994 health care plan, simultaneously running against Medicare cuts and a federal takeover of the health sector. That debate had featured possibly apocryphal quotes from seniors who wanted “the government to get their hands off my Medicare” and similarly came back to haunt congressional Republicans when they turned their attention to Medicare reform.
Even the Tea Party, the inchoate group of activists pressing the GOP to cut spending and curb borrowing, appears to be conflicted about entitlements. A McClatchy/Marist poll found that 70 percent of self-described Tea Party supporters opposed cutting Medicare and Medicaid as a way to reduce the budget deficit. Those numbers were only slightly better than the 73 percent of Republicans who said they opposed such cuts and actually slightly worse than the 68 percent of conservatives who gave the same answer. (There is data that cuts the other way, however, and the methodology for determining who is a “Tea Party supporter” varies from poll to poll.)
A detailed New York Times/CBS News poll found that while 92 percent of Tea Party supporters say they want a smaller government that provides fewer services, 62 percent said the benefits from Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs. That is 14 points less than the overall percentage of voters who thought the costs were worth the benefits, but it’s a substantial majority nonetheless. The Tea Partiers polled were more likely to be on Social Security or Medicare than the general public.
Some defend Social Security and Medicare as earned entitlements, pointing out that they paid a large number of taxes into the system. These are not pure welfare programs. The New York Times, as is its wont, found a Tea Partier who recanted her support of limited government when confronted with this apparent contradiction. “That’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” she was quoted as saying. “I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.”
THE REPUBLICAN PARTY has frequently pledged to give its voters both smaller government and Social Security. But the number of Republicans openly campaigning for entitlement reform — my old colleague Phil Klein has called them the “Republican honesty caucus” — has grown. Pat Toomey has been an outspoken supporter of personal accounts for Social Security. In his 2010 Senate race, he won the senior vote by 18 points. Toomey had previously been elected to the House in a swing district — carried by both Clinton and Gore — with a large number of seniors. Likewise, Marco Rubio won a 50 percent plurality of seniors in a three-way race in Florida. His closest opponent, Charlie Crist, took just 33 percent. In Kentucky, Rand Paul, who has since introduced a bill that would means-test Social Security, was hit on entitlement reform but nevertheless won seniors by 16 points.
In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson even made Perry-like comments about Social Security being a Ponzi scheme. Instead of backing down when Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold attacked him, Johnson defended himself in an ad. Johnson beat Feingold 54 percent to 46 percent among senior citizens, though it should be noted the Republican’s biggest margin of victory was among voters aged 40 to 49. He also did well among voters whose ages stretched from 30 to 44.
An overwhelming majority of House Republicans voted for a budget that included Paul Ryan’s Medicare reforms. Most of the dissenters actually wanted a budget that cut spending even more drastically. A majority of Senate Republicans also voted with Ryan. When Newt Gingrich — perhaps seeing flashbacks from his own failed bid to rein in Medicare as House speaker — dubbed Ryan’s proposal “social engineering,” the reaction from the base was swift and harsh. An angry Iowan confronted Gingrich and told him to his face, “You’re an embarrassment to our party.”
“Why don’t you get out now before you make a bigger fool of yourself?” the man demanded in an encounter widely replayed on YouTube. “What you just did to Paul Ryan is unforgivable.” Radio talk show callers and Wall Street Journal editorialists echoed these complaints. So did longtime allies. ”I’m not going to justify this,” said Rush Limbaugh. Bill Bennett argued Gingrich had “taken himself out of serious consideration for the race.” Gingrich ended up apologizing to Ryan. His current poll numbers are only marginally healthier than Medicare’s finances.
Even individual Republicans can’t keep straight which side of this debate they are on. The same Michele Bachmann who expressed concerns about Rick Perry’s Social Security comments once called the program a “fraud.” Romney — who has in the past been less genteel when talking about Social Security himself — has suggested he would sign the Ryan Medicare reforms into law if elected president, but he has been unwilling to embrace them as his own.
Conservatives and libertarians hungry for straight talk about entitlements have praised Perry’s candor. The syndicated columnist and free-market economist Walter Williams wrote, “Three cheers to Perry for having the guts to tell us that Social Security is a monstrous lie and a Ponzi scheme.” Williams pointed out that Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson, and even Paul Krugman have all described Social Security’s finances similarly. “We should be grateful that a major candidate has finally spoken truth to fiction,” concurred the Cato Institute’s Roger Pilon.
SOCIAL SECURITY IS a large and growing problem. Those who find comfort in the fact that it isn’t the main driver of our annual budget deficits today miss the point. The program’s unfunded liabilities of more than $16 trillion far exceed the deficit. Benefits are growing faster than revenues. The ratio of workers paying into the system to retirees drawing benefits has declined from 16 to 1 to 3 to 1. It is becoming a progressively lousier deal for workers. Many proposed reforms fix some of these problems but fail to address them all.
The stock market’s collapse has sapped public confidence in private alternatives, however. People have seen the value of their 401ks decline. The percentage of non-retirees who tell pollsters they expect to rely on Social Security benefits has started rising. The program may be a Ponzi scheme and the long-term returns of private investment may still be significantly better, but right now Americans are nervous about both.
From the perspective of partisan politics, the Perry-Romney fight may be the equivalent of mutually assured destruction. By attacking a Republican who makes limited-government and constitutionalist arguments against a major federal program, Romney is accentuating his own liabilities. He is also practically writing copy for commercials Obama will run against Perry should the Texas governor be the GOP nominee.
Perry, however, is departing from the script that has best served Republicans pushing for Social Security reform. Winning Republicans have tended to emphasize that they want to save the major entitlement programs. Democrats always insist the GOP wants to destroy them. Perry is letting himself sound like he would destroy the entitlements village in order to save it.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?