Republican Efforts to Address Social Security: A New Chapter?

The Republican presidential debate may have ended before it even started. President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign swiftly stepped in to remind everyone that Biden has no plan for Social Security other than letting it plunge into insolvency. Republicans on the debate stage “explicitly talked about” possible cuts to Social Security, Biden campaign spokesman Seth Schuster wrote in a statement to the media. If Trump returns to office, the benefits millions of America’s seniors rely on will once again be on the chopping block. This has become a routine for Biden, one that he highlighted most famously at this year’s State of the Union address: Attack Republicans for supposedly trying to cut Social Security to deflect attention from the fact that Social Security will cut itself in about a decade if nothing is done. When the old-age entitlement reaches insolvency in the early 2030s, it will be able to pay out only as much money as it collects each year, resulting in an across-the-board cut of 23 percent for all beneficiaries, according to the latest projections from the program’s trustees. Pointing the finger at Donald Trump puts Biden an extra degree removed from reality: the former President has opposed making changes to Social Security whenever the topic has come up. Indeed, Trump’s campaign is running ads attacking his 2024 primary challengers for this issue. On Social Security, Biden and Trump are experiencing a shared delusion, a political folie à deux. In contrast, some of the Republican candidates on the debate stage Wednesday night offered a glimpse of reality. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie even offered a few actual policy ideas that would help solve the looming problem. Any candidate that tells you that they’re not going to take on entitlements is not being serious, Haley said, before pointing the finger at Biden, Trump, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has also rejected serious changes to the Social Security system. We have to deal with this problem, Christie said, calling for raising the retirement age for younger workers and means-testing benefits, which would reduce or eliminate payments to wealthier retirees. Christie went on to argue for reevaluating the purpose of Social Security, which should be viewed like the food stamp program: a safety net that everyone helps fund but doesn’t necessarily benefit from. Christie is right that means-testing benefits is fairer than raising payroll taxes to keep Social Security solvent—a move that would accelerate the program’s wealth transfer. But simply raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits might not be enough to keep Social Security solvent—depending on the specifics of the changes. And, any changes to the structure of Social Security should allow workers to opt out of the program entirely. That is fine, but Haley will have to make changes that will affect people older than their 20s. Social Security’s long-term instability should have been addressed in the 2000s or the 2010s, when there would have been a longer timeframe for phasing in changes. Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy pointed out that a solution must come soon to prevent benefit cuts to current retirees. But he offered nothing in the way of a substantial plan for entitlements other than a vague promise to reduce future government spending. DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.) do not want to make any changes. Any candidates who won’t take part in a discussion on Social Security will continue to underline their unseriousness.