Last Thursday, the New York Times reported on Florida senator Rick Scott’s continued efforts to “sunset” Social Security and Medicare — that is, subject them to congressional reapproval every five years, failing which they would cease to exist. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, outraged that Scott insists on publicly slapping a Republican sticker on an extremely unpopular policy, went so far as to suggest Scott would have trouble winning reelection in a state heavily populated with retirees. The intraparty feud is doubly awkward for Republicans given that Scott heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the fundraising and campaign group for Senate Republicans.
Scott appeared to relent the next day, saying he would now exclude Social Security, Medicare, and veterans’ benefits from the proposed “sunset” requirements. But then on Tuesday, he once again asserted the need to “fix” Social Security and Medicare, without specifying how. With this shift, Scott merely got in line with the more traditional Republican rhetoric about supposedly “fixing” or “strengthening” Social Security by privatizing it.
In the same Fox Business segment in which he finally got on-message about “fixing” Social Security and Medicare, Scott spoke with ghoulish glee about budget cutting, claiming that when he was governor of Florida he personally went through the state’s entire budget to find more programs to cut. “There’s four thousand lines in the budget in Florida. I went line by line and said, we are not going to fund this if it doesn’t meet its purpose,” Scott said.
That’s pretty standard Republican bluster — for everything except Social Security and Medicare. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy went through a similar song and dance a few weeks earlier before eventually backing off direct calls to cut the programs. Rick Scott’s recent comments stood out because, up until this week, he was embarrassing the party by saying too directly what most Republican politicians really think. Aside from the military and police, the GOP has barely ever seen a government program it didn’t want to reduce, hobble, privatize, or eliminate.
So what makes Social Security and Medicare different? Why are Republicans hesitant to go after these programs, and why do they couch their hostility to them in unusually tepid language when they do?
One immediate factor is Donald Trump. While Trump’s history on Social Security is muddled at best, more recently he has recently come out strongly against cuts to Social Security and Medicare. “Be careful, Rick, and most importantly fight for Social Security and Medicare. THERE WILL BE NO CUTS,” Trump posted on his Truth Social account last week.
As with most things Trump, it is unclear whether he actually believes what he says or whether the issue is simply a convenient cudgel to attack Ron DeSantis and other potential rivals. Either way, the rest of the GOP has been forced to react to his pronouncements, which in this case means a less aggressive stance against the popular programs than they might otherwise like.
But more importantly, the simple and universal structure of Social Security and Medicare makes them much harder to undermine. Nearly every voter in the United States either receives significant benefits from the programs or will in the future, and those who don’t currently receive benefits almost certainly know and love multiple people who do. Eligibility for the programs is virtually universal and enrollment is comparatively simple. The programs are minimally means-tested (though, unfortunately, not completely free of means testing), and comparatively easy for voters to understand. Lacking active grassroots movements to preserve and expand them and connect them to the greater common good, they might not quite qualify as “engines of solidarity.” But their broad, simple appeal makes them incredibly popular — and thus durable.
In short, they are unlike most social spending in the United States, which Democrats and Republicans alike have structured as convoluted patchworks of programs subject to complicated income and behavioral requirements that can vary significantly according to location, as can application processes and benefits. The fact that each program has its own separate eligibility criteria helps keep the constituencies for social spending atomized. When social spending programs are difficult to access and aren’t provided to many people who would benefit from them, they feel remote, or perhaps like charity. Since many voters are either only faintly aware of such programs, or perhaps upset that they don’t benefit from them, it is easy for Republicans to go “line by line” and cut them.
Unfortunately, while they might not have as much fun cutting social spending as the GOP, the Democratic Party has little interest in structuring social spending in a universal, and thus more durable, way. They have so far refused to budge on Republicans’ calls to cut Social Security and Medicare. That’s good, but rather than learn from what makes the programs so popular, Democrats have moved in the opposite direction. The party let broader social programs enacted during the pandemic, like universal free school lunch and an expanded child tax credit, expire before they had time to take root.
The elimination of the latter program was particularly egregious. No one denied it took millions of children out of poverty, and they were immediately thrown back into it as soon as the program was killed. Had the program continued for another decade, might it have become as untouchable as Social Security? For Democrats, it appears that was a liability, not an asset.