As a member of Congress a decade ago, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recognized the seriousness of the crisis facing Social Security.

Between 2013 and 2015, DeSantis voted multiple times for budget plans crafted by then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R–Wis.) that, among other things, aimed to raise the Social Security retirement age to 70 and make changes to how cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security beneficiaries are calculated. Those proposals never won majority support in Congress, but they were prudent, fiscally conservative proposals that would have helped postpone Social Security’s quickly approaching insolvency.

That might as well be ancient history from the perspective of the 2024 Republican primary. During Wednesday’s debate in Iowa, DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley clashed over Social Security—with DeSantis accusing Haley of supporting some of the same changes that he once actually voted for and promising not to “mess with seniors’ benefits.”

As Reason has pointed out repeatedly, promising to not touch Social Security is essentially a promise to cut benefits. When insolvency hits in 2033, Social Security will be able to pay out only 77 percent of promised benefits, according to the most recent assessment by the board of trustees that oversees Social Security.

Confronted with his about-face on raising the retirement age, DeSantis said Wednesday that he now opposes an increase because average life expectancy has declined in recent years.

That’s a bit of a red herring, as Brian Riedl, a former Senate budget staffer and current Manhattan Institute fiscal expert, pointed out on X (formerly Twitter). Overall life expectancy has dipped in recent years—due to the pandemic and other factors—but the relevant factor for Social Security is life expectancy at age 65. For Americans who reach retirement age, life expectancy continues to rise.

Even if that weren’t true, however, declining life expectancy wouldn’t prevent Social Security’s insolvency—so, at best, this is not an answer to the actual problem.

Despite her many well-documented awful opinions on foreign policy, Haley is undeniably the most clear-eyed candidate when it comes to fiscal and entitlement policy. Social Security is going to go bankrupt in 10 years,” she said Wednesday night. “We have to keep our promises to seniors, but we also can’t put our heads in the sand.”

While that would have been a mainstream Republican view before 2016, Haley now finds herself under attack by other candidates simply because she’s the only one willing to point out that doing nothing isn’t an option.

That dynamic caused some bizarre exchanges between the two candidates on Wednesday. For example, at one point Haley framed DeSantis’ shifting positions on Social Security as being shady. “Now, suddenly, he’s going to tell you, because he’s running for president, he’s not going to [raise the retirement age]. You can’t trust him,” she argued.

The subtext there, however, undermines her own position: It makes it sound like raising the retirement age is a bad idea that DeSantis is trying to keep secret from the voters—instead of being a prudent, fiscally responsible idea that she supports.

At another point during the exchange, DeSantis attacked Haley for calling Social Security an entitlement. There’s a nugget of truth there: Social Security isn’t truly an entitlement because (as the Supreme Court has ruled) workers have no contractual right to any of the promised benefits. The idea that you’ve paid into the system and therefore have earned some reward after retirement is utterly false.

But that’s not what DeSantis was trying to argue. Instead, he’s essentially adopted a left-wing talking point that’s meant to make it harder to confront the real problems with Social Security’s structure and cash flow. The argument itself is internally incoherent: Social Security isn’t an entitlement, because you’ve paid into it and are therefore…well, entitled to benefits?

In all, that segment of the debate served as a useful and telling example of the Republican Party’s fundamental unseriousness when it comes to Social Security. And don’t expect anything better from the race’s frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, who helped usher in the current GOP confusion about Social Security when he broke with longstanding conservative views on the program in 2016.

Trump remains a leading voice within the faction of Republicans promising to make no changes to Social Security, even as its insolvency nears. “We will always protect Social Security and Medicare for our great seniors,” Trump reiterated at a rally last month, where he accused DeSantis of wanting to “knock the hell out of” Social Security.

Meanwhile, it’s no secret that DeSantis has evolved into a very different kind of Republican since his time as a congressional backbencher during the so-called “tea party” era—a transition that I detailed at greater length in a Reason cover story last year. There’s possibly no topic where that change is more obvious than Social Security policy, where DeSantis has abandoned even a willingness to acknowledge the problems facing the old-age entitlement program.

You might think of him as the personal embodiment of how the GOP has changed from the Ryan era to the Trump years: out with fiscal responsibility and economic policy, in with culture wars and telling voters whatever they want to hear.

It’s impossible to have a useful conversation about the true cost of saving Social Security—likely to be some politically unpalatable mix of huge tax increases and benefit cuts—if candidates can’t even agree on the very real problem. That means we’re even farther away from the conversation that ought to be happening instead: how to free workers from this massive, mandatory Ponzi scheme that’s robbing their ability to save for their own retirements.

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