Davos went to President Trump’s head. Perhaps it was the rarefied air of the annual World Economic Forum, a place where billionaires congratulate one another on what they see as their unique virtues and smarts. Perhaps it was the ego boost, as Trump basked in acceptance by a high-end business crowd that once held him at arm’s length. But whatever the reason, it caused Trump to make a major mistake.
Trump gave away the Republican game on Social Security and Medicare.
During an interview with CNBC on Wednesday, Trump was asked, “[Would] entitlements ever be on your plate?” Entitlements are, of course, Washington-speak for Medicare and Social Security. Trump responded, “At some point they will be,” adding, “It’ll be toward the end of the year.” Just in case Trump misunderstood, Joe Kernen followed up, reminding him this was something he had “said you wouldn’t do in the past” and specifically mentioning Medicare. Trump cut him off. “Well, we’re going to look.”
For Democrats, this is what’s generally known as a gimme — one that makes it more important than ever that the Democrats make sure their presidential nominee is someone who can take on Trump over the issue. That person is not former vice president Joe Biden, and that’s true no matter how many commercials he runs proclaiming, “Joe Biden has repeatedly voted to save Social Security.”
Trump’s pitch when he ran for president, from the very first day of his campaign, was that he was the Republican who would, and I quote exactly, “save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts.” He repeated that as recently as Thursday on Twitter: “Democrats are going to destroy your Social Security. I have totally left it alone, as promised, and will save it!” It was an obvious con then and is an obvious con now. In 2016, both the Trump campaign chief policy adviser and a prominent supporter assured people their man didn’t mean it.
The clues have surrounded us ever since. Larry Kudlow, Trump’s own chief economic adviser, claimed in 2018, also on CNBC, entitlement spending would likely come up for review in 2019. “We have to be tougher on spending,” he said. (CNBC, like Davos, loosens the tongues of millionaires and billionaires, but I digress.)
And indeed last year, Trump signed an executive order that would, if carried out in full, weaken Medicare’s finances. While signing it, he told a group of Florida seniors he was saving the program from the Democrats. He’s also proposed making it harder for people to qualify for Social Security disability payments. But these steps do not, in the eyes of the public, translate to a full-on attack.
Which brings us back to the ongoing fracas in the Democratic Party. As I pointed out last week, Biden is all but a walking attack ad on the issue, with decades of videotape in the vault of him talking “tough” on Social Security and Medicare. Yes, he took a hard line against privatization of Social Security, and yes, he now supports an expansion of benefits, but he has also promoted or considered pausing the annual cost-of-living adjustments, raising the retirement age and similar measures.
Let me explain. When a politician endorses benefit freezes, making cost-of-living raises less generous and raising the age of eligibility for benefits, they are cutting people’s Social Security checks, no matter how they try to frame the issue. That’s because recipients will receive less money over the long haul. The National Women’s Law Center calculated in 2011 that a switch to a less generous inflation calculation would cost the average woman more than $1,500 a year if she lived to 95. Most people rightly recognize these sorts of things — which are usually advertised as an attempt to improve the program — as a reduction in the monthly stipend they will receive.
Instead, a number of politicians have adopted the strategy of framing these kinds of proposed changes as an attempt to save the program from a worse fate. You don’t need to believe me. David Stockman said it in the early 1980s, claiming such a strategy would “permit the politicians to make it look like they’re doing something for the beneficiary population when they’re doing something to it which they normally wouldn’t have the courage to undertake.” This has been the Republican game for decades.
And it’s very close to how Biden sounded over the years when he claimed to be promoting the need to make “tough” decisions about these programs. But then the conversation changed. Bernie Sanders’s decades-long history of attempting to increase Social Security benefits began to have an impact. Elizabeth Warren’s election to the Senate made a difference too — she quickly garnered attention for her financial plans, which included making the retirement program more generous. And now Biden talks a different talk.
(It’s also worth noting that former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg has also been known to worry about Social Security and Medicare, claiming on “Face the Nation” in 2013, “No program to reduce the deficit makes any sense whatsoever unless you address the issue of entitlements, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security.”)
Now Trump — out of ignorance, bluster or hubris — has all but taped an attack ad for his eventual Democratic opponent. Democrats can’t afford to let this opportunity slip away. They need to hang it around Trump’s neck, and the only way they will reliably be able to do that is to select a challenger whose record on protecting Social Security and Medicare is rock-solid.