Three of Donald Trump’s rivals for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination are pushing for cuts to Social Security benefits that would only affect young Americans, as party leaders grapple with the volatile politics of the retirement package.
In comments Sunday as well as in interviews earlier this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (right) said Social Security will need to be revamped — but not for loved ones or retirees.
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Former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley have held similar positions since launching their presidential campaigns. From the earliest days of his 2016 run, Trump vowed to leave Social Security and Medicare untouched — a break from GOP orthodoxy that changed party views — and more recently hammered DeSantis for wanting to cut the program.
“When people say we’re going to somehow cut seniors down, that’s absolutely not true,” DeSantis said on Fox News. “Talking about making changes for people in their 30s and 40s so that the program is viable – that’s a very different thing, and I think that will have to be discussed.”
On Monday, Pence told Fox Business, “I’m glad to see another candidate in this primary has agreed to step up and talk about it.”
The positions taken by Trump’s three rivals suggest that even the fiscally conservative candidates in the GOP presidential primary are reluctant to endorse cutting Social Security for seniors, underscoring how much the party has changed on the issue. Former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the party’s 2012 running mate, had led the party in championing budget plans that would have resulted in deep cuts to both Social Security and Medicare.
As the Republican Party increasingly depends on older voters for support and Trump continues to exert a strong influence on party beliefs, GOP policymakers have followed the former president’s lead in avoiding proposals to scrap the program, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) ruling him out during debt ceiling negotiations earlier this year with the White House.
But focusing potential cuts on young people, as proposed by Trump’s challengers, also has its drawbacks. The posturing of the candidates risks alienating young voters who are already increasingly alienated from the Republican Party. And cutting benefits for young people leaves most of the problem unsolved, experts say, given that the Social Security funding crisis is set to arrive decades before Millennials get their first checks.
“It clearly wouldn’t solve the shortfall, or the short- to medium-term problem that we’re going to have in 10 years or less,” said Howard Gleckman, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.
Economists from both parties agree that Social Security and Medicare, the health insurance program for seniors, face funding crises if Congress does not act to shore up their finances one way or another, either by cutting benefits or raising taxes. If no reforms are passed, social security benefits for about 60 million people will be cut by 20% from 2033, according to the latest report from the boards of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Medicare also faces automatic benefit reductions as early as 2031, the report said.
President Biden has proposed raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations to keep Medicare from running out of funds. But the latest White House budget does not offer a solution to expand Social Security. Many congressional Democrats have also called for trillions in new taxes to avoid the Social Security deficit.
Policy pundits have long said it will likely take a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to address the looming funding crunch facing Social Security and Medicare. The Social Security Old Age and Survivors Trust Fund is only expected to be able to pay 77% of benefits in 2033, which would likely lead to automatic cuts in payments. People in their 40s are still more than two decades away from receiving Social Security benefits.
DeSantis and Pence’s comments suggest some Republicans “have not updated their talking points from the 1990s,” said Brian Riedl, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank. Thirty years ago, Riedl said, it would have been possible to make the case for solving the funding gap just by limiting benefits for future recipients. But given that the huge generation of baby boomers is now at retirement age, exempting them from the cuts would still leave the program in crisis.
“I understand the politics of not wanting to lead with ‘We’ll cut seniors,'” Riedl said. “But it might be better to say nothing than to come up with an unpopular approach that doesn’t even avert a debt crisis because it would be implemented far too late.”
DeSantis’ message will likely be tested soon. Trump has released video messages tying DeSantis to House Republicans who wanted to cut Social Security and for pushing to raise the retirement age when the Florida governor served in Congress, though Trump has also voiced support in the past for raising the retirement age.
“Donald Trump politically banned Social Security and other benefits” for Republican politicians, said Bill Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “But there are still Republicans, including some top Republicans, who understand that we won’t make serious progress on our budget issues until everything is on the table. They’re trying to open that discussion, not immediately shut it down.”
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