Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, floated a proposal to change the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare and limit benefits for upper income Americans. But she remained vague about the details, failing to pinpoint a specific age she would set for retirement.
Haley’s proposal comes as the budget wars are heating up, and the more Republicans touch the third rail of entitlement programs, the more Democrats will benefit.
President Joe Biden, showing the power of the bully pulpit to shape the national agenda, has put forth a bold budget proposal that seeks to cut the deficit by increasing taxes on higher income Americans while protecting Medicare and discretionary spending, reducing prescription drug costs for seniors and capping insulin at $35 a month for all Americans.
Following several months of Republicans doubling down on culture war issues that they hope will peel away the support of disaffected Democrats and independents while energizing the Republican base, Biden is hitting back hard on real issues that affect millions of Americans’ daily lives.
Rather than spending time on issues like policing classroom textbooks or stoking fears over transgender Americans, Biden wants to put money where his mouth is. The president is offering a fiscal blueprint steeped in the traditions of his party by ensuring the commitment of the federal government to provide a social safety net — and funding those programs in the most progressive way possible.
Seeking to put Republicans calling for cutbacks in support to Ukraine in a difficult position, he is also asking for increases in military spending so that the United States can continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russia.
As for Haley’s proposal, it is not surprising that Republicans like former President Donald Trump have already attacked fellow GOP candidates for wanting to raise the retirement age or cut Medicare, while others in the party are scrambling to distance themselves from a House Republican Caucus that is pushing for draconian cuts to domestic programs. While the party has backed away from touching Social Security and Medicare, for now, they are instead pushing for massive reductions in other programs such as food assistance and housing programs for lower-income Americans.
With the decision to raise the debt ceiling still unsettled, the House GOP is threatening to send the nation into a financial spiral if the administration does not concede to its demands. It’s not a great look for Republicans, and there is good reason that many Americans don’t trust the GOP’s promises to back off Social Security and Medicare. First of all, House Republicans have shown they are capable of resorting to extreme measures. Secondly, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, two potential 2024 presidential candidates, have previously endorsed privatizing the programs or making cuts, as have other prominent members of the party.
The problem for Republicans is that these and other domestic programs remain extremely popular. Even Haley’s proposal to increase the retirement age and means test benefits won’t sit well with millions of Americans who count on and support these two universal social insurance programs that have done so much to alleviate the challenges of old age. Other domestic policies also command strong support as polls show that voters want the government to play a major role on a number of issues — including ensuring access to health care and helping people get out of poverty — even when they don’t trust in the government to always do the right thing.
Some Republicans learned these hard lessons with the Affordable Care Act, which has become increasingly popular despite strong opposition from Republicans, who spent years trying to repeal the legislation. That effort culminated in the famous moment in 2017 when Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona gave a dramatic thumbs down on the Senate floor, blowing up Trump’s “skinny repeal” bill. Not surprisingly, Trump is now insisting that the GOP should vow that they won’t touch Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Biden’s plan to raise taxes from 37% to 39.6% on Americans who earn more than $400,000 a year and impose a minimum tax on billionaires is also a winning strategy, since Americans tend to support progressive taxation. The move makes predictable criticisms against the president as a “tax-and-spend” liberal more difficult.
Although the shadow of President Ronald Reagan’s famous line that “government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem,” continues to shape the anti-government rhetoric of the GOP, the reality was that his administration failed to make the draconian cuts to domestic spending that he promised. (While he succeeded in reducing spending in some areas, he failed to dismantle any major domestic programs.)
Indeed, his administration quickly backed off from a plan to curtail Social Security benefits in 1981, after Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill pounced on the White House, saying, “For the first time since 1935 people would suffer because they trusted in the Social Security system. I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about decency. It is a rotten thing to do. It is a despicable thing.” It was from this battle that the concept of Social Security being a “third rail” in American politics emerged.
As Republicans continue to wade into this issue, they are poised to hand Biden and the Democrats a big win. Biden understands this, as he demonstrated during his State of the Union address, when he backed Republicans into a corner on Social Security and Medicare. It is for this reason that he is forcing Republicans to have a conversation, with specifics, about what they mean when they attack the government and federal spending.
For it is one thing to tell Americans that Washington is broken and another to say they will slash the federal benefits upon which so many of them have come to depend on.