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Updated Feb 9, 2023, 11:16am EST
politics

Democrats think 2024 Republicans have a Tea Party weak spot on entitlements

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The News

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Joe Biden wants to keep roughing up his opponents over Social Security and Medicare.

The president earned a memorable shower of boos from Republican lawmakers during this week’s State of the Union, after he accused them of using the debt ceiling as leverage to wrangle cuts from the programs. On Thursday, he’s headed to Tampa, Fla. for a speech the White House says will double down on the issue.

Democrats are gearing up to make it a major issue in 2024 as well, where they believe they have a critical ally: Paul Ryan.

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Many of the GOP’s top potential contenders voted for the former House speaker’s budgets, which famously would have turned Medicare into a voucher program for private insurance to save money.

The idea fell off the political radar under President Trump, but with Ryan-era conservatives back in the spotlight, Democrats want to force them to account for their old positions.

“It’s not just Hill Republicans,” Democratic National Committee Spokesman Ammar Moussa said in a statement. “Potential 2024 Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated they are hellbent on gutting Social Security and Medicare.”

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Democrats note that former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem all voted for the Ryan budget while members of the House. As governor of South Carolina at the time, Nikki Haley praised Ryan’s Medicare plan for “trying to bring common sense to this world of insanity.”

During his time in Congress, meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis voted for a series of budget resolutions crafted by the conservative Republican Study Committee that would have voucherized Medicare for new beneficiaries, slowed Social Security cost of living increases, and raised the retirement age for both programs.

In a statement, a Pompeo spokesperson told Semafor that he “does not support cutting Medicare or Social Security benefits for those who are currently receiving them or near to receiving them.”

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“Only dishonest reporters would say voting for a budget means that they do,” the spokesperson added. Other candidates did not respond to a request for comment or declined to comment.

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The View From Mar-a-Lago

Biden isn’t the only candidate looking to hit his opponents with a rolled up copy of the Ryan plan: Donald Trump also looks poised to do the same during the GOP primary.

Trump famously flouted Republican orthodoxy in 2016 by promising not to touch Medicare or Social Security. He reiterated that stance recently, telling Republicans not to cut a “single penny” from Social Security or Medicare in debt ceiling talks. And while Democrats accused him of trying to cut Social Security’s disability benefits and undermine its revenue in office, the attacks never stuck.

“President Trump has been clear where he stands on the issue,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung told Semafor. “Others will have to decide which side they’re on. And others will have to answer to past positions they’ve taken.”

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Shelby and Jordan's View

Don’t expect many GOP nominees to stand up for Ryan-style fiscal conservatism. Despite Biden’s recent claims, Republicans seemingly have less desire these days to cut programs for seniors since Trump gave them an off-ramp on the issue.

A handful of GOP congressmen have suggested they’d like to see major entitlement cuts in return for raising the debt ceiling, but House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has flatly said Social Security and Medicare are “off the table.” And as the State of the Union’s hecklers made clear, most Republicans would also like to erase all human memory of Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s proposal last year to sunset all federal programs every five years, which Biden seized as a cudgel in his speech.

“I think Republicans are starting to understand that there’s no politically feasible way to take on entitlement reform,” Jon Schweppe, policy director at the American Principles Project, told Semafor. “It’s a political loser that Democrats have crushed them on repeatedly. It doesn’t matter if the policy is smart or good.”

Still, past votes have haunted candidates before and it could take some political dexterity for candidates to reposition themselves now. It’s at least plausible that Ryan’s ghost could make Trump the nominee, or give Biden a second term.

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Room for Disagreement

Mike Pence isn’t running from his old fiscal conservatism. Instead, he’s seemingly leaning into it by talking about privatizing Social Security, an idea the party largely abandoned after a politically damaging push in 2005.

“I think the day could come where we can replace the New Deal with a Better Deal,” he said during an interview in February. “Literally give younger Americans the ability to take a portion of their Social Security withholdings and put that into a private savings account that the government would oversee.”

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