The Republican assault on social insurance continues apace

Republicans have made their desire to cut – or gut – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid clear for decades.  Jack Fitzpatrick tells us that they are gearing up for another bite at the apple:

Social Security and Medicare eligibility changes, spending caps, and safety-net work requirements are among the top priorities for key House Republicans who want to use next year’s debt-limit deadline to extract concessions from Democrats.

The four Republicans interested in serving as House Budget Committee chairman in the next Congress said in interviews that next year’s deadline to raise or suspend the debt ceiling is a point of leverage if their party can win control of the House in the November midterm elections.

Here’s Jonathan Chait on the political strategy:

It might seem strange that Republicans would be pivoting to a more aggressive agenda without holding the White House. But this is actually consistent with the strategy they have followed over the past three decades. Republicans are committed to scaling back the safety net. But they realize this agenda is toxically unpopular — even less popular than defunding the police, a policy Democrats have repudiated en masse.

They could try to accomplish this through compromise — the previous two Democratic presidents showed some willingness to trade social-spending cuts for higher taxes on the rich. But higher taxes on the rich are completely verboten in the GOP. And so their strategy is to force Democratic presidents to sign spending cuts into law against their will.

. . .

And while this tactic has never worked before, it has the theoretical attraction of evading the public’s deep aversion to the GOP policy agenda by extorting the Democrats into endorsing it.

It is hardly news that Republicans are really committed to dismantling Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but this does highlight a puzzle:  Democrats have successfully resisted Republican attacks, but they have been remarkably ineffective at turning this into a winning political issue, given how important these programs are to most Americans.  Perhaps this year will be different, but color me skeptical.

Why doesn’t “the Republican war on Social Security and Medicare” get the same traction as “Democrats are soft on crime” or culture war nonsense like “Democrats are committed to the woke agenda”? 

The press is part of the problem, as Coberly shows here.  (See this appalling WAPO “fact checker” column also.) 

But there must be more to it.  Maybe it’s just not credible to warn about large cuts to Social Security when the threat is not imminent, just as it was difficult to get political traction on the Supreme Court and abortion rights pre-Dobbs.  Or maybe Democrats are failing to seize an opportunity to lead public opinion on this issue. 

Perhaps President Biden can stop the extortion by refusing to negotiate if Republicans threaten to close the government or force a debt default.  “I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”  Negotiations muddy responsibility, and lots of voters just won’t follow the plot.  Another possibility is to have an equivalent of Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, but geared towards maintaining benefits.  Or have a non-binding vote on maintaining benefits and rejecting privatization.

I’m not sure what is going on here, but unless Democrats can turn social insurance into a voting issue the future of these programs could well depend on a random turn of events that gives political power to Republicans, like a war in Europe that raises gas prices in the month before a critical election.