Donald Trump is driving a wedge through the GOP over one of American politics’ thorniest issues: the future of Medicare and Social Security.
The former president’s attacks on potential GOP primary opponents, and his warning to party leaders to stay away from the popular entitlement programs in their push to cut spending, are cleaving Republicans at every level. Lawmakers who once backed entitlement overhauls are now openly at odds with colleagues who’d prefer to soften their positions before they face voters in 2024. And a GOP presidential race that’s a referendum on Trump himself is now also becoming one on Medicare and Social Security.
While the GOP once more actively pushed for changing both programs’ benefits, Trump has separated the party into two distinct camps as he attacks Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as a “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy” for supporting a congressional budget that alters Medicare. Both Republican camps and even some Democrats agree that Trump’s moves are politically effective. But some GOP members are angry to see their party freshly divided over fiscal austerity.
“It got him elected the first time, and I think it will get him elected the second time,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Budget Committee’s top Republican, said of Trump’s rhetoric. “But it doesn’t do anything for our children and grandchildren that aren’t going to have a program that I’m enjoying right now.”
Others say the GOP has changed for the better in the past 10 years — finally accepting that the voters aren’t as divided as elected officials over whether to touch the two decades-old programs, as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) put it.
“I distinctly remember somebody basically ran a presidential campaign on this in 2012: the Paul Ryan budget, the austerity budget,” Hawley said, invoking the former GOP vice presidential nominee’s famous fiscal hawkishness. “I don’t recall that ticket performing very well. I personally don’t care to go back to that.”
Trump’s pugnacious messaging comes at a crossroads for the party internally, as a group of senators quietly meets about possible changes to endorse on Medicare and Social Security. And Trump’s tactics have some Republicans clamming up or endorsing more modest ideas aimed at ensuring the programs don’t go bankrupt, despite projections that both may be headed for insolvency in about a decade.
Among the alternate GOP suggestions as the party shapes its approach to the upcoming debt-limit fight: targeting fraud and waste; imposing work requirements or raising the eligibility age; and other benefits formula changes. A number of Republicans have also pointed to legislation from Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that would create “rescue committees” aimed at negotiating changes designed to save the programs in the long term.
It’s enough to send Republican eyes rolling up and down the Capitol.
“The best thing to do is just ignore him,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of Trump. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) called Trump’s attack on DeSantis “very unfortunate.”
“We need an adult as president who is going to take on the tough challenges, the tough problems, and be prepared to share with the American people how serious it is. That we use facts. And not scare tactics,” said Rounds, a member of the Senate’s working group on entitlements.
But Trump clearly sees a promise to leave Medicare and Social Security alone as a winning message. He assailed primary opponent Nikki Haley for decade-old comments about even considering entitlement cuts in order to slow the growth of the government.
Trump’s also broken on the matter with DeSantis, who as a congressman voted on three non-binding budgets that called for gradually raising Medicare’s eligibility age, and his former vice president (Mike Pence said on CNBC recently that Social Security and Medicare should be “on the table in the long term”).
DeSantis, Pence and Haley aren’t alone in potential vulnerability to attack from Trump over the issue. Other possible presidential candidates, including South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), have supported entitlement changes.
As GOP debate over entitlements first stirred last month, Trump delivered a brushback pitch to congressional Republicans in a video warning them not to lay a finger on Social Security or Medicare as part of the debt ceiling showdown. Aides say he will continue to make the issue of entitlement reform a key part of his campaign, despite GOP handwringing.
“It goes to the broader picture of how this isn’t just Trump against Democrats — it’s Trump against the establishment,” said a Trump adviser who sought anonymity to speak. “This is a defining policy moment for a lot of Republicans.”
Republicans have long struggled to trim popular programs, from former President George W. Bush’s failed Social Security privatization plan to the GOP’s bids to repeal Obamacare and scale back its Medicaid expansion. Party leaders are currently vowing to stay away from entitlements as they pursue still-unspecified spending cuts in exchange for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling, harmonizing with Trump.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy said last month that Social Security and Medicare cuts are “completely off the table.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said while Trump is “gifted at making the complex simple,” he is irked by the former president’s “intellectually dishonest” campaign rhetoric on entitlements. Trump’s allies see it differently, calling out a party they say focused too much on trimming or changing the eligibility age for some of the government’s most popular programs.
Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) said talking about entitlement cuts is “politically stupid.”
“I really don’t like the political attitude that so many people take where they will take a set of programs that are wildly popular and very beneficial for Republican voters, and point to all of the other things that are more important than them,” said Vance, who has endorsed Trump.
Notably, Trump’s past budgets haven’t exactly aligned with his argument against cutting entitlements. His fiscal 2021 budget, for example, sought steep safety net cuts, including tens of billions of dollars in reductions to Social Security benefits for disabled workers and Medicare changes designed to yield about $500 billion in savings without reducing benefits.
Democrats have shown little interest in uniting around any proposed entitlement changes of their own despite dire projections for the programs’ fiscal future. But they see an advantage in the GOP split.
Republican division on the matter “shows a lack of discipline,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). “You would not think it’s a group of individuals that have an organized plan on how we deal with our budget, debt and deficit over a long period of time.”
And the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee gave Trump begrudging credit for resonating with his base.
“I give the devil his due,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) said. “I think he has a better finger on the pulse of the Republican primary electorate than the Romney-Ryan wing.”
Exploiting their opponents’ internal feud could also help Democrats after a midterm campaign that left Republicans acknowledging the success of entitlement-themed attacks on GOP Senate candidates. Last year’s Arizona Senate nominee Blake Masters, toyed with the idea of privatizing Social Security before backtracking.
“Telling old folk … that Blake Masters wants to privatize Social Security is probably going to scare them a little bit,” Arizona-based GOP strategist Barrett Marson said of Masters, who’s considering another run in 2024.
Meridith McGraw and Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.