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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Romney’s Social Security pitch is a better fit for the general election, though Perry’s might help convince the Republican base to stop making exceptions for the retirement program when contemplating spending cuts. A Quinnipiac poll of Florida Republicans — many of them seniors — showed Perry leading Romney and siding with the Texas governor in this debate.
Only 14 percent of Florida Republicans believe Perry wants to dismantle Social Security, while 60 percent believe he wants to save it. Fully 52 percent believe his description of the program as a Ponzi scheme is fair compared to 39 percent who don’t. But the numbers reverse when looking at Florida voters as a whole. Fifty-eight percent of all Floridians find the Ponzi scheme comment unfair and only 33 percent agree with it. Similarly, 37 percent of all Sunshine State voters think Perry wants to end Social Security, 35 percent believe he wants to fix it, and 28 percent aren’t sure.
THE IMPLICATIONS FOR entitlement reform are more important than the political wrangling for the Republican nomination. While no generally friend of limited government, Bush advanced the argument for sweeping changes to Social Security farther than any other Republican leader. Though his initiative failed, Republicans who supported it paid little price at the ballot box. It is striking that Bush never said anything remotely critical of Social Security itself, preferring to emphasize reforms that will keep it solvent for the next generation.
It took decades of detailed Republican arguments to prepare the country for welfare reform. Rhetoric about “welfare queens” played well with the base. Arguments that welfare harmed the poor and undermined middle-class values did a better job reaching swing voters. Winning over the uncommitted was essential to prevailing in that debate and getting to the point where even Democrats like Bill Clinton talked about “ending welfare as we know it.”
Many Americans don’t understand what the problems with Social Security are or think they are very far off. Those who do comprehend the program’s financial shortfall either don’t know the alternatives or are put off by anything that will cut their future benefits or bring home their present mother-in-law. This is an argument Republicans are going to have to make openly rather than run from, but they need more than welfare queen — or Ponzi scheme — rhetoric.
Democrats are far from wanting to end Social Security as we know it. To them, any reform other than lifting the payroll tax cap constitutes ending Social Security, period. But there are ways to put the issue on less favorable ground for the president’s party. Warren Buffett is eager to see people in his income cohort pay more taxes. Let them give up their Social Security checks first.
Middle-class voters need to understand that current benefits can’t be paid by forcing only the wealthy, however inaptly defined, to pay more. Everyone, including middle-class voters, will have to pay higher taxes to prop up the post-Great Society welfare state as the baby boomers retire. Surely, some of those voters would rather save for their own retirements even in a time of financial uncertainty. For the one financial certainty is that the federal government’s present fiscal course is unsustainable.
Why should Republicans take this risk? They have been better served by vague generalities about smaller government accompanied with fierce attacks on Democratic tinkering with middle-class entitlements. Attacking government spending for the middle class — even in an effort to bring benefits into line with what historic tax rates can pay — is much more dangerous than going after plainly redistributive programs for people who don’t work.
Ultimately, Republicans have no choice. To lose the entitlements argument is to lose that battle over the size of government. More pressingly for the party, it is also to surrender the tax issue, perhaps permanently. Without being able to feasibly keep a commitment to low taxes, the GOP really has nothing to say about the economy to millions of Americans.
Paul Ryan’s proposed entitlement reforms are controversial because they simultaneously envision lower taxes, including for the wealthy, and long-term spending cuts for everyone. The electorate needs to understand, and after decades of dealing with Democrats is predisposed to understand, that the competing vision means higher taxes for everyone.
In the end, the 2012 presidential election will turn on two questions: Do the voters judge Obama’s presidency a failure? Can the Republican nominee present himself — or herself — as a plausible alternative? We already know the answer to the first question. Similarly, the debate over entitlements also hinges on two questions. Do the voters understand that the system is broken? And is there a plausible alternative?
Right now, both questions are unresolved. Republicans must change this, for how these questions are answered may have a bigger impact on the party’s long-term fortunes than even the race against Obama.
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