On The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare
Democrats are dusting off a well-worn playbook as they prepare to launch their campaign against President Trump, revisiting a debate over entitlement spending that is almost as old as the social programs that make up so much of the nation’s budget.
The plan to accuse Trump of plotting a raid on Social Security and Medicare has worked for both Democrats and Republicans before. Recalling those old battles offers a hint of what Americans will see on their television screens and in their mailboxes this year, ahead of November’s presidential election.
Trump himself handed Democrats the tools they will use to warn of his future actions. In an interview last month on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump told CNBC anchor Joe Kernen that cutting entitlement programs would be an option if he wins a second term.
“[Will] entitlements ever be on your plate?” Kernen asked.
“At some point they will be,” Trump said, before crowing about the nation’s economic growth.
“If you’re willing to do some of the things that you said you wouldn’t do in the past, though, in terms of Medicare —“ Kernen tried again.
“Well, we’re going — we’re going to look,” Trump said again.
To some Democrats, it was 2011 all over again. Back then, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) offered a budget that slowed Medicare’s rate of annual growth and turned Medicaid into a block grant program. When the House passed Ryan’s blueprint along party lines, Democrats castigated Republicans for voting to cut entitlement programs so beloved by seniors, one of the largest factions of voters in the entire electorate.
“There were a lot of ads against congressional candidates on ending Medicare as we know it,” recalled Josh Schwerin, a regional press secretary at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2011 and now the senior strategist at Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC focused on the presidential race. When Mitt Romney picked Ryan to serve as his vice presidential candidate, the Ryan budget “helped to define the choice for president a bit and frame congressional races.”
Health care, Medicare and prescription drug policy accounted for more than a quarter of the television advertisements aired on behalf of President Barack Obama’s reelection bid against Romney. Just over 5 percent of pro-Romney ads featured health care, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.
The social safety net programs remain as popular with senior citizens — those most likely to show up to the polls in November — as ever. Nearly six in ten retirees told Gallup pollsters that Social Security is a major source of their income. A consumer survey conducted last February showed three in four seniors covered by Medicare are satisfied, and 68 percent were worried that benefits would be reduced.
Now, groups like Priorities USA say they will use the potential for entitlement cuts as part of a three-pronged attack on Trump. Trump, they will say, is proposing to cut entitlements after passing a tax bill that favored the wealthy, all while supporting a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act’s protections for those with preexisting conditions.
“Here are policies proposed by the president, and talked about by the president, that are wildly unpopular. And you can pair that with policies he has already enacted,” Schwerin said.
Republicans remember the days of the Ryan budget all too well. After Ryan’s budget came out, Republicans complained that Democrats back in their districts were hammering them over the “end of Medicare as we know it.”
After the 2010 wave, Republicans suffered an ominous defeat in a special election to replace Rep. Chris Lee (R) in Upstate New York. Another special election loomed in Nevada, to fill a seat left vacant when Republican Dean Heller was appointed to an open Senate seat, and Democrats were preparing the same playbook. A poll conducted in early August showed the Republican candidate, Mark Amodei, clinging to a one-point lead over his Democratic rival, Kate Marshall.
But, in what may represent an instructive lesson for both Democrats and Republicans this year, Amodei flipped the argument. He said only Democrats had voted to cut entitlement spending, through the Affordable Care Act. His mother appeared in campaign ads, pledging that her son would never take away benefits.
Republicans accused Democrats of misleading attacks back then, and Trump’s campaign plans to do so again this time.
“President Trump has made clear that he will protect the benefits of people who rely on programs like Social Security and Medicare,” said Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s campaign spokesman. “Because of President Trump’s stellar record of success for all Americans, all that Democrats have to run on is fear and misinformation. It won’t work.”
For all the controversy he has endured, President Trump’s favorable and job ratings have remained remarkably consistent, trading within a narrow range for three straight years. Few Americans are undecided about, or willing to change their views of, the most polarizing president in modern history.
That means Democrats will not be able to move voters by attacking Trump’s impolitic statements, or his impeachable offenses. Voters have already decided whether they like Trump or not — more accurately, whether they love him or hate him. But the potential entitlement cuts at which Trump hinted open a new opportunity for Democrats to cut into Trump’s base, one that could hit the pocketbooks of the largest bloc of voters in the country.
“It’s something,” Schwerin predicted, “that will show up in a lot of ads.”
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.
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