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A Fiscal Sister Souljah

Medicare and Social Security cuts: the right’s version of “defund the police.”

Former President Trump Speaks At New Hampshire Republican State Committee's Annual Meeting

Responsible Republicans must denounce the extremism that has overtaken their party. Unlike the forms of extremism that prominent people love to denounce, it comes from above, not below. It reflects the convictions of famous people in high positions rather than anonymous social-media users. And it poses a material threat to countless Americans. 

I speak, of course, of the party’s wrongheaded attacks on Medicare and Social Security.

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Entitlement cuts are in the news because House Republicans have discussed requiring them in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Jodey Arrington, the new Republican leader of the House Budget Committee, endorsed an increase in the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican from Pennsylvania, has proposed “some sort of means-testing” for the programs.

These calls are part of a broader push to end entitlements in their present form. Last year, Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, suggested eliminating Medicare and Social Security as entitlements and turning them into discretionary spending items, making them subject to renewal each year. A budget proposal issued in June by the conservative Republican Study Committee would replace Social Security with private savings accounts, a move that would require massive borrowing as the government tries to meet current Social Security obligations while diverting tax revenues into private accounts. Some activists on the right have gone further and proposed abolishing Social Security altogether.

Calls to end entitlements are the right’s version of “defund the police.” In both cases, a nexus of activists and donors advances a deeply unpopular agenda at the expense of its party’s own constituents. In both cases, real problems in the provision of government services inspire unworkable ideas that voters despise. 

Republicans aren’t wrong to say that something needs to change. The Social Security Administration estimates that it will begin defaulting on its obligations in 2034. Medicare will start facing shortfalls in 2028. Addressing these problems will require a bipartisan effort on the level of the Greenspan Commission, which set Social Security on a more stable footing in 1983. They can’t be solved by non-starter proposals from a party that controls only one half of Congress.

In the run-up to the 2022 midterms, Democratic politicians began to distance themselves from their activist base and their more intemperate colleagues who had called for defunding police. Rep. Abigail Spanberger called defunding the police a “terrible idea.” President Biden urged Congress to “fund the police!” Republicans need to do something similar. 

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Donald Trump has already begun to criticize Republicans on entitlements. “Do not cut the benefits our seniors worked for and paid for their entire lives,” the former president said in a campaign video last week. “Save Social Security, don’t destroy it.” Trump is disliked by a wide swath of voters, but so are conventional Republican proposals for Social Security. Trump won in 2016 in part because he defied his party on this issue. For all his personal and political limitations, his victory showed the promise of a Republican Party that isn’t entirely captive to small-government ideology.

Ron DeSantis, widely seen as Trump’s main rival for the GOP nomination, has been the target of Democratic attacks over votes he cast as a congressman in favor of measures that would have cut entitlements. It seems unlikely that DeSantis will be defined by these votes, which came on general budget measures and in a previous phase of his political career. But he and other Republican candidates should reassure voters by rejecting elements of their coalition that have called for a drastic overhaul of entitlements. Think of it as a fiscal Sister Souljah.

Behind this debate lies one of the deepest problems faced by the American right. Because of its conviction that many government programs and departments simply shouldn’t exist, the right indulges fantasies of rollback and repeal rather than figuring out how to direct these things toward its preferred ends. The populist right’s stylistic radicalism and justified mistrust of elites frequently hobbles its efforts to use government for its preferred ends—things like promoting border security, reviving declining communities, and helping families. But things are hardly better on the staid Brooks Brothers right, which seemingly wants the government to do nothing. 

Conservatives love to criticize utopian rhetoric, but their dreams of abolishing the government are as unreal as any proposal from the socialist left. There are political consequences to this impracticality. A political leader or administrator formed by the assumptions of today’s right is on balance less likely to use government effectively, because he has been taught to believe that government programs and bodies are useless if not harmful.There are signs that political sense is gaining ground on the right. J.D. Vance, the newly elected senator from Ohio, tweeted that Trump’s warning against cutting entitlements was “100% correct.” The voters who back the Republican Party are older and less likely than Democrats to have college degrees. They depend on Medicare and Social Security. For their sake, Republicans should distance themselves from the extremism that has grown up in their midst.

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