Image credit: DF / Public Seminar
I’ll be honest: I love Joe Biden. And because I love Joe Biden, he makes me a little nervous every time he opens his mouth. Although the media seems to have become accustomed enough to Biden’s stumbles and misspoken words that pundits no longer defer conversations about what he has said for endless rumination on how he has said it, I still want the kid who stutters to do well.
This is why, at about the two-thirds point in the State of the Union address and after a pretty smooth ride through the speech, my anxiety spiked when Biden poked the GOP bear on Social Security and Medicare. I didn’t anticipate it because he went in through the side door: Republicans’ demands for cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
And what are Republicans always trying to cut? Virtually every program that makes life worth living—education, the arts, research—and social programs. In the past, this usually meant money intended to support and lift up the poor. But this year, four Republican Senators—Rick Scott (PA), Marco Rubio (FL), Lindsey Graham (SC, and Ron Johnson (WI)—have indicated their willingness to touch the proverbial “third rail” of electoral politics, Social Security. Rubio and Graham are pushing for “reforms,” Scott wants to hold all federal programs hostage every five years, and Johnson to renegotiate Social Security and Medicare annually.
This shows you how much the GOP is running on ideology because it makes no sense to do this. According to a study by Pew Research Center in 2020, the average American voter is closer to retirement age than not: 52% are over fifty. But 56% of Republican voters are over 50, and 22% are over 65. This last group is where the GOP has picked up its biggest margins in the previous three elections.
Which is why Joey decided to go for it. After explaining that Trump had run up the debt more than any other president, and Congress had obliged him by raising the debt ceiling anyway, he paused. “So my — many of — some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage,” Biden began:
I get it — unless I agree to their economic plans. All of you at home should know what those plans are.
Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans — some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I’m not saying it’s a majority —
At which point, Republicans—who were probably also taken by surprise, and had spent most of the speech with their fannies glued to their seats, started roaring: “NO!”
It was as if no one among them had ever had that thought. “Anybody who doubts it, contact my office,” said Biden, grinning. “I’ll give you a copy. I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.” At which point, Marjorie Taylor Greene, dressed as Evita Perón, screamed: “Liar!” while her fellow fakey-fake Republicans bellowed about their loyalty to the social safety net.
Biden appeared to enjoy this scene immensely and continued, still grinning:
I enjoy conversion.
You know, it means if Congress doesn’t keep the programs the way they are, they’d go away.
Other Republicans say — I’m not saying it’s a majority of you. I don’t even think it’s a significant—but it’s being proposed by individuals.
I’m not—politely, not naming them, but it’s being proposed by some of you.
Look, folks, the idea is that we’re not going to be — we’re not going to be moved into being threatened to default on the debt if we don’t respond.
As Democrats applauded, Biden looked to the glowering Republicans and said cheerfully: “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare are off the—off the books now, right? They’re not to be touched?” The applause was deafening. “All right,” Biden cheered. “We got unanimity!” And he then asked Republicans to get out of their seats to “show [American seniors] we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare.”
“Those benefits belong to the American people,” Biden finished: “They earned it….And, look, I’m not going to allow them to take away — be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. But apparently,” the President grinned, “it’s not going to be a problem.”
Touché. But if it isn’t a problem, that will be a significant break from the past
“That’s not a Republican plan,” Mitch McConnell huffed on a Kentucky radio station the day after the State of the Union debacle made Rick Scott’s idea to sunset Social security and Medicare front page news.
Now let’s be clear: Mitch is not entirely wrong. It was one plan floated by one senator. Furthermore, Republicans have not always hated Social Security and Medicare, but conservatives have. And rising GOP’s opposition to the social safety net is a historical metric for the party becoming not just an exclusive home for conservatives but a safe space for reactionaries.
Let’s start at the beginning. On Friday, April 19, 1935, when House Democrats passed the Social Security Bill with, as the New York Times put it, “perfect party discipline,” liberals in both parties, and Democratic conservatives, had united against a far more radical approach: the “Townsend Plan.” Devised by Dr. Francis E. Townsend and supported by tens of thousands of adherents across the United States organized in almost 3,000 clubs, that plan proposed a $ 200-a-month pension for each retiree. That’s $4,332 in 2023 dollars, slightly more than I would get if I started taking Social Security at 70, the age when benefits top out.
Not surprisingly, Social Security, the Times wrote, provided “much smaller pensions for the aged” than the Townsend plan. It also had other drawbacks. It wasn’t universal. Like national pension plans worldwide, the program did not apply to agricultural and domestic workers, excluding 65% of African Americans and 27% of whites until 1950. When the final vote was taken, only 2% of Democrats voted against the program—because they wanted it to be more generous— while 33% of Republicans backed corporate America’s assertion that state pensions for the elderly and disabled would result in “destroying initiative, discouraging thrift, and stifling individual responsibility.”
But liberal Republicans still roamed the halls of Congress in the 1950s, which is how a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, expanded Social Security again in 1954, legislation sponsored by his own party. The bill made 10 million retired workers and disabled Americans eligible for Social Security, raised payments and the threshold for exempt earnings; the bill also eliminated four out of the five lowest earning years from the calculus that determined monthly benefits.
But when extremist Senator Barry Goldwater had seized the Republican nomination for President in 1964, those GOP liberals were starting to head for the exits, while Democratic conservatives became Republicans. That year, conservatives in both parties stepped up to oppose the signature Medicare and Medicaid bill sent to Congress by Lyndon Johnson, denouncing it as a “Soviet-style model” of healthcare.
It passed anyway, but the objection to social spending flourished in an increasingly conservative GOP. Some on the party’s far-right argued that Social Security and Medicare would encourage Americans to stop providing for themselves. Goldwater characterized these and other redistributionist programs designed to help the poor, aged, and disabled as “socialism through welfarism.” His supporter and political heir, Ronald Reagan, who would run for Governor of California that year, characterized the social safety net as another form of “welfare” and claimed that it was the reason he left the Democratic party and became a Republican.
When Reagan became President, and ironically, a symbol of robust old age, he backed away from open hostility to Social Security, signing a bill in 1983 that supposedly “saved” it from insolvency by raising the payroll tax. But wait! As economics professor and blogger Allen W. Smith explained in 2013, the $2.7 trillion raised by the tax, which was supposed to be held in trust until 2010, was pillaged by the administration to shrink a yawning budget gap created by tax cuts and accelerated military spending.
In the post-Reagan years, Republicans proposed a new method for undermining the social safety net while claiming they were saving it: voluntary diversion of SSI taxes to private investment. In 1990, Republican Congressman John Edward Porter, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, proposed the first of this privatization plan. Although President George H.W. Bush deemed it “worthy…of consideration,” he did not endorse it, perhaps because he was facing re-election in 1992.
But the plan re-emerged fifteen years later. In 2005, President George W. Bush proposed to “reform” Social Security by creating a new financial vehicle, Personal Retirement Accounts, an idea initially proposed by his predecessor, Bill Clinton. PRAs supposedly hedged against the “failure” of government benefits by allowing Americans to redirect a portion of their social security taxes into so-called “nest eggs” that could be annuitized upon retirement. Or they could be partially annuitized, with the remainder becoming an inheritable asset.
Of course, the diversion of millions of tax dollars into private investment accounts could also cause the failure of a system that relies on workers putting money into Social Security. As could the stock market lighting itself on fire, which happens regularly: the 2008 meltdown, which eviscerated numerous 401(k) and other savings accounts, has taken such plans off the table for now. But what they have been replaced by is constant Republican howling that so-called “entitlement programs” are driving the nation’s finances into a ditch. As Caleb Ecarma writes at Vanity Fair,
Republicans often launch their boldest attacks against entitlements when they aren’t wielding the presidential veto. During the House Republican majority’s debt ceiling fight in 2013, a group of 51 GOP lawmakers demanded that Speaker John Boehner include Social Security cuts in negotiations with Barack Obama, calling it the “best opportunity to begin solving our nation’s significant budget imbalances.” But the last time Republicans controlled the White House, Senate, and House, they did not make a concerted effort to cut entitlements. (Although Paul Ryan, then-House Speaker, has said he really wanted to. “[Trump] and I fought about Medicare and entitlement reform all the time,” Ryan said last year. “It became clear to me there was no way he wanted to embrace that.”)
More evidence that Trump isn’t really a Republican? Maybe. Or perhaps it’s just his talent for marketing kicking in. A 202 AARP poll showed that 96% of Americans “regardless of [political] affiliation, said Social Security was either the most important government program or an important one compared with other government programs.”
It’s the only thing Americans agree on: and the only thing Republicans are divided about. And on the brink of announcing his 2024 campaign, Joe Biden knows that too.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This article first appeared in slightly different form on her Substack, Political Junkie.