The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ryan says Biden, Trump put country at risk by swearing off changes to Medicare, Social Security

The former House speaker called Trump a “proven loser” and warned Republicans they would face more defeats if they continued to embrace lies about election fraud

President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) at the White House in 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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MADISON, Wis. — Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) accused both President Biden and former president Donald Trump of putting the country at financial risk by swearing off making changes to Medicare and Social Security.

“Biden and Trump — and I lump them in the same sentence — Biden and Trump are doing the opposite of leadership,” Ryan said in an interview Tuesday. “They’re trying to scare people, and they’re playing political demagoguery with one of the most important issues facing our country this century.”

Ryan also criticized the now-abandoned plan by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to force votes on authorizing the two entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security, every five years and expressed concern about the general direction of his political party. He dubbed Trump a “proven loser” and warned Republicans that they would face more defeats if they continue to embrace lies about election fraud.

Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee and former chairman of the House Budget Committee, repeatedly pushed economic policies that called for raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 and giving future beneficiaries set amounts of money to cover their health-care costs. Democrats campaigned against those ideas, and Biden renewed that strategy this month in his State of the Union address when he said that some Republicans want to cut Medicare and Social Security. His speech elicited boos from Republicans and a shout of “Liar!’ from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), though some Republicans do favor changes to the programs.

In response to the outburst, Biden hailed the apparent unanimity among Republicans and Democrats not to cut Medicare and Social Security.

Ryan said he was frustrated that some of his fellow Republicans were walking away from an issue that they rallied around during his time as a top-ranking member of the House.

“Do I think our party has done some backsliding? Yes, because of Trump populism,” Ryan said in a telephone interview. “But I still believe there’s a very big core in our party that understands the magnitude of this issue, wants to be responsible and fix this problem before it gets ugly and out of control.”

On Wednesday, former vice president Mike Pence, who served in the House with Ryan, said cuts to Medicare and Social Security should be “on the table for the long term,” breaking with Trump as he considers a run for president in 2024. “We’re looking at a debt crisis in this country over the next 25 years that’s driven by entitlements, and nobody in Washington, D.C., wants to talk about it,” Pence said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

Ryan is a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and in that role served as an editor of “American Renewal,” a book that calls for changes to Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Ryan said Republicans and Democrats need to address the cost of Medicare and Social Security now because the fiscal problem will become more difficult to solve as time passes. He said Republicans should not fear the issue because they survived politically when House Republicans passed his budget proposals.

“I think what happened in my party is people got intimidated by the politics. And Trump, who has chosen to engage in demagogic entitlement populism, has led a lot of people away from being responsible and from doing the right thing,” he said. “And the consequence of that, much like Biden’s politics, is to push us closer to bankruptcy.”

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said Ryan’s ideas are politically perilous.

“It is stunning a loser like Paul Ryan is doubling down on cutting Medicare and Social Security for elderly Americans,” he said in a written statement, adding, “Any candidate who backs cutting Medicare and Social Security is doomed.”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said that Ryan and Pence’s comments showed Biden was right when he warned that some Republicans wanted to cut Medicare and Social Security.

“What do Donald Trump and Paul Ryan have in common? Both ran on Medicare cuts and tax giveaways for rich special interests, then they both lost to Joe Biden,” Bates said in a written statement, referring to Biden’s win as vice president in 2012 and as president in 2020. He added that Pence and Ryan “became the latest to double-down on cutting the earned benefit programs that middle class Americans pay into throughout their entire working lives.”

Biden’s State of the Union attack on Republicans was aimed mostly at the parts of Scott’s plan that would have required votes every five years to retain Medicare and Social Security. Scott last week backtracked, dropping the Medicare and Social Security provisions of his plan.

Ryan said he didn’t agree with Scott’s initial plan because he thinks Medicare and Social Security should be modified, not put at risk of elimination.

“I just think he gave them a weapon needlessly,” Ryan said of Scott.

In the emerging presidential race, Ryan said it’s too early for him to support a particular candidate, saying he’s backing “the candidate not named Trump.”

“He’s a proven loser,” Ryan said. “I think his unelectability is his Achilles’ heel, and that in and of itself is going to be a unifying argument to move on from Trump.”

Ryan acknowledged that in a large field, Trump could eke out the nomination with a small number of primary votes. “That’s the big challenge, that’s the big threat, that’s the big concern,” he said.

He said he thinks most Republicans are ready to move past Trump but worries that some of them remain committed to the former president’s election lies. On Saturday, Michigan Republicans chose as their chairwoman Kristina Karamo, who falsely claimed the 2020 and 2022 elections were fraudulent. She lost her 2022 bid for Michigan secretary of state by 14 points.

“We proved in 2022 that if you run on election conspiracy theories and re-litigate the ’20 election, it’s a loser for you,” Ryan said. “I think we’ll prove it again if we keep with that in 2024. … Look at what happened to them this last election. They got creamed over there [in Michigan].”

Karamo did not immediately respond to questions about Ryan’s comments.

Republicans can win elections if they nominate candidates who look to the future instead of the past, Ryan said.

“I guess in some places we’re just going to keep recording losses until we learn the lesson,” he said. “I’m hopeful that for the presidency, we’ll learn the lesson in time for 2024.”