Juan Williams: The real fight is over entitlements

Juan Williams: The real fight is over entitlements
© Greg Nash

Who knew?

All the big talk about President-elect Trump and Congressional Republicans dismantling ObamaCare now looks to be political cover for the GOP to go after Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security.

The first hint came in December when Rep. Sam JohnsonSamuel (Sam) Robert JohnsonVan Taylor wins reelection to Texas seat held by GOP since 1968 House seeks ways to honor John Lewis Sam Johnson: Fighter for the greater good MORE (R-Texas) introduced a bill to cut Social Security benefits for most recipients. He also proposed steadily increasing the age, from 67 to 69, at which Americans get full Social Security benefits.


Johnson, chairman of the Social Security subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, asserts that spending on Social Security has to be cut quickly to prevent the program from going bankrupt. This claim is strongly disputed by others.


But with a strong tide of Republican support for dismantling ObamaCare, the congressman sees a political opportunity to make the case for cutting all entitlement spending.

He will have support in the Trump administration for his plan to cut spending on healthcare.

Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), is a major critic of ObamaCare and a strong supporter of Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump faces test of power with early endorsements Lobbying world Boehner throws support behind Republican who backed Trump impeachment MORE’s (R-Wis.) plan to overhaul Medicare. If he is confirmed, he will be positioned to stop any defense of Medicare by advocates working within the agency that oversees the program. 

After the GOP trounced the Democrats in November, Ryan was open about using the repeal of ObamaCare to go after other entitlement programs.

“When ObamaCare became ObamaCare,” Ryan said in a Fox News interview two days after the November election, “ObamaCare rewrote Medicare, rewrote Medicaid. So if you are going to repeal and replace ObamaCare, you have to address those issues as well.”

The Speaker said flatly that Medicare is going to have “price controls.” He asserted that “Medicaid is in fiscal straits,” and explained that changes to those programs are “part of our plan to replace ObamaCare.”

But who knew Republicans would be as bold as to make the plan their first order of business — before Trump has taken office and before any repeal of ObamaCare?

When he was chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan proposed limiting spending on Medicare by changing it from an entitlement program into a voucher program, ending federal guaranteed coverage of medical care for seniors. That led Democrats to run ads claiming that Republicans wanted to throw grandma off the cliff.

Before that, President Bush’s failed attempt at privatizing Social Security hurt Republicans.

But GOP fear of giving Democrats ammunition to attack them is now gone after their sweeping victory in November.

They are ready to test the nation’s political appetite for an overhaul of all entitlement spending.

Across the political divide, congressional Democrats see the GOP plan as extreme political overreach.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHolder, Yates lead letter backing Biden pick for Civil Rights Division at DOJ Capitol Police officer killed in car attack lies in honor in Capitol Rotunda Rep. Andy Kim on Asian hate: 'I've never felt this level of fear' MORE (N.Y.) last week described the GOP effort to scale back the healthcare act, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, as a “full-scale assault on the three pillars” of America’s healthcare system. He called it a plan to “Make America Sick Again.”

That led the president-elect to tweet that Schumer is the Democrats’ “head clown,” adding that Democrats “know how bad ObamaCare is and what a mess they are in.”

But Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  Why does Bernie Sanders want to quash Elon Musk's dreams? Congress can protect sacred Oak Flat in Arizona from mining project MORE (I- Vt.) last week reminded Republicans that their incoming president might not be on board with everything they aim to do.

Sanders resurrected a Trump campaign tweet and blew it up for display on the Senate floor. During the GOP primaries, Trump tweeted that one of his rivals, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, was imitating him by ruling out cuts to the big entitlement programs.

Trump’s tweet read: “I was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid. Huckabee copied me.”

Standing before that tweet, Sanders called on Trump to promise to “veto any legislation that cuts Medicare, that cuts Medicaid or that cuts Social Security.”

It’s not surprising that GOP budget cutters would target the big entitlement plans to fund their agenda of tax breaks for the wealthy; roughly half of the federal budget goes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But these programs are popular. 

A survey taken last month by Allstate/Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor found that a whopping 80 percent of voters say Washington should be “protecting Medicare and Social Security from any reductions to ensure those who paid a contribution receive their promised benefits.” 

A mere 16 percent said they favored “reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits for upper-income seniors to help reduce the federal deficit.”

The seniors who depend upon these programs have the highest voter turnouts in midterm elections of any cohort.

As Sanders pointed out, the Democrats have an unlikely ally in this fight in the shape of Trump himself, who is on record vowing to protect the entitlement programs. 

As Trump showed last week in a kerfuffle over an independent ethics body, he is willing to poke Congressional Republicans when they do something he doesn’t like.

Democrats rightly believe that if they can beat back GOP efforts to dissolve the social safety net, they will regain standing with some of the working class voters who deserted them for Trump. 

The question of the moment is whether Democrats, busy fighting to hold on to ObamaCare, can simultaneously pressure Trump into helping them fight Republicans in order to save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.