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Senators Hold Press Availability After Weekly Policy Luncheons
Sen. Ron Johnson speaks to members of the media as he arrives for the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon on June 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images, File

On Social Security, GOP’s Ron Johnson walks along the third rail

Can Ron Johnson win a re-election campaign as an overt critic of Social Security? The Wisconsin Republican is testing the proposition.


Though there’s some debate over the origins of the phrase, the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill is often credited with labeling Social Security the “third rail” of American politics. The idea is relatively straightforward: Social Security is so popular, and is seen as such a pillar of modern American life, that officials who target the program are putting their political lives at risk.

With this in mind, it’s amazing to see so many Republicans volunteer this year to test the underlying principle.

In Arizona, for example, Republican Senate hopeful Blake Masters recently endorsed privatizing Social Security, despite running in a state with quite a few retirees. Similarly, in Florida — another state where a handful of retirees reside — Republican Sen. Rick Scott has been surprisingly aggressive about putting Social Security at risk.

But in Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has been even more cavalier about throwing caution to the wind, recently endorsing the idea of moving Medicare and Social Security into Congress’ discretionary budget — in the process, ending guaranteed and automatic benefits — where they could be subjected to annual cuts.

As The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported over the weekend, the controversial GOP senator has had opportunities to express support for the existing Social Security system, but he keeps going in the opposite direction.

Weeks after saying Social Security and Medicare should be subjected to annual budget talks — a stance that caused political blow back from his foes — Johnson once again weighed into America’s signature social insurance program. During a Wednesday campaign stop in Rice Lake, Johnson said Social Security “was set up improperly” and that the system’s funds would have been better off invested in the stock market.

As part of the same comments, the incumbent senator, facing a tough re-election fight, claimed he wanted to “save” Social Security, apparently by uprooting it through some kind of privatization scheme. (I say “some kind of” because Johnson has not specified exactly how he’d overhaul the system.)

I’ve long wondered whether a Senate candidate in a battleground state could win a campaign as an overt critic of Social Security. As Johnson takes a stroll on the third rail, Wisconsin voters will help answer the question in 11 weeks.