In one of the opening battles of the Republican presidential primary, former President Donald Trump has positioned himself as the only White House GOP hopeful who won’t cut Americans’ Social Security and Medicare benefits. But it’s an absurd proposition; he’s made similar promises in the past, and they were lies.
Trump runs on protecting entitlement programs because it’s politically expedient, and because spending is uninteresting to him. But when he was in office, he demonstrated that he had no problem screwing over voters on the issue.
All of Trump's White House budget proposals included cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
A new Politico report details how Trump is striking out at his competitors and causing chaos in the Republican caucus with his renewed interest in defending entitlement programs. In January Trump warned Republican lawmakers not to touch Social Security and Medicare as they search for programs to cut in negotiations over the debt ceiling. And in his campaigning, he has attempted to paint 2024 contenders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (who has all but officially entered the race) and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as threats to the programs based on their previous support for trimming them. Former Vice President Mike Pence has broken with his former boss on the issue as well.
Some Republican lawmakers who have long favored cuts are openly frustrated by Trump’s positioning: “It got him elected the first time, and I think it will get him elected the second time,” Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa told Politico. “But it doesn’t do anything for our children and grandchildren that aren’t going to have a program that I’m enjoying right now.”
Why Trump's 2024 campaign is anything but normalFeb. 3, 202311:31
We’ve seen this gambit before. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged that he wouldn’t cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. It was a sharp break from GOP orthodoxy, and it got him a great deal of attention. As a right-wing nationalist, Trump wasn’t ideologically drawn toward the old Republican establishment’s emphasis on “fiscal responsibility” and gutting government services; his chief economic concerns were tied to trade, manufacturing and immigration. He also knew that entitlement programs — especially Social Security and Medicare — are popular across the country and supported by huge swaths of the Republican base and that past attempts to “reform” them with cuts have failed because of their centrality to the American social safety net. It was a win-win.
But after he entered office, he couldn’t have cared less. All of Trump's White House budget proposals included cuts to Medicare and Social Security. The health care legislation he worked on with Republicans entailed big cuts to Medicaid. Toward the end of his term, Trump said he’d consider making cuts to Medicare if he were re-elected as a way to cut the federal deficit, which had increased during his presidency. He didn’t succeed in these efforts, but it illustrated how he didn’t care about the issue except as an election gimmick and that he was happy to sacrifice it in his transactions with the GOP establishment.
It was also a sign of his sheer incompetence. As Vox explained in 2019, Mick Mulvaney, his budget manager, "once bragged to a Politico reporter that he tricked Trump into accepting a proposal to cut Social Security by calling SSDI just disability insurance — spinning it to the president as general welfare reform. The idea has been in every single one of Trump’s budget proposals to Congress since the president came to office.”
On a political level, Trump might get mileage on defending entitlement programs once again. But it’s a trap, and hopefully fewer will fall for it this time.