In pressing Republicans on Social Security and Medicare, President Joe Biden is reprising one of the most dramatic moments of his long career.
During the 2012 vice-presidential debate, Biden engaged in a nearly 11-minute exchange with GOP nominee Paul Ryan over Republican plans to reconfigure the two massive programs for the elderly, several of which Ryan had authored himself.
Biden and many Democrats felt he had won the argument on stage. Yet on Election Day, Ryan and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney routed Biden and President Barack Obama among White seniors, and beat them soundly among seniors overall, exit polls found.
That outcome underscores the obstacles facing Biden now as he tries to recapture older voters by portraying Republicans as threats to the two towers of America’s safety net for the elderly. While polls consistently show that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans to safeguard the programs, GOP presidential nominees have carried all seniors in every presidential election back to 2004 and have reached at least 58% support among White seniors in each of the past four contests, exit polls have found. Democrats have likewise consistently struggled among those nearing retirement, older working adults aged 45-64.
Those results suggest that for most older voters, affinity for the GOP messages on other issues – particularly its resistance, in the Donald Trump era, to cultural and racial change – has outweighed their views about Social Security and Medicare. Those grooves are now cut so deeply, over so many elections, that Biden may struggle to change them much no matter how hard he rails against a range of GOP proposals that could retrench or restructure the programs.
Biden’s charge that Republicans are threatening the two giant entitlement programs for the elderly – which triggered his striking back and forth exchanges with GOP legislators during the State of the Union – fits squarely in his broader political positioning as he turns toward his expected reelection campaign.
As I’ve written, the 80-year-old Biden, at his core, “remains something like a pre-1970s Democrat, who is most comfortable with a party focused less on cultural crusades than on delivering kitchen-table benefits to people who work with their hands.” As president he’s expressed that inclination primarily through what he calls his “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America” – the planks in his economic plans, such as generous incentives to revive domestic manufacturing, aimed at creating more opportunity for workers without a college degree. Politically, Biden’s staunch defense of Social Security and Medicare, programs critical to the economic security of financially vulnerable retirees, represents a logical bookend to that emphasis.
“We all know that whose side you are on is a critical debate point for every election and this debate over Social Security and Medicare really helps crystallize whose side Biden is on versus whose side Republicans are on in a very effective way for him,” said Democratic pollster Matt Hogan, who helped conduct an extensive series of bipartisan polls during the 2022 campaign measuring attitudes among seniors for the AARP, the giant lobby for the elderly.
From Franklin Roosevelt through Hubert Humphrey and Tip O’Neill, generations of Democrats have framed themselves as the defenders of the social safety net for seniors against Republicans who they say would unravel it. Biden showed how comfortable he was stepping into those shoes during his 2012 vice-presidential debate with Ryan, then a young representative from Wisconsin who Romney had selected as his running mate.
Nearly 30 years Biden’s junior, Ryan was an unflinching advocate of restructuring Social Security and Medicare to reduce costs over time. In particular, Ryan was the principal supporter of a conservative plan to convert Medicare, the giant federal health insurance program for the elderly, into a system called “premium support.” Under that proposal, Medicare would be transformed from its current structure, in which the government directly pays doctors and hospitals who provide care for beneficiaries, into a voucher (or “premium support”) system, in which the government would provide recipients a fixed sum to purchase private insurance. Ryan had also drafted proposals to partially privatize Social Security by allowing workers to divert part of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts, a change that would have reduced the tax dollars flowing into the system and eventually required substantial cuts in guaranteed benefits.
For nearly 11 minutes during the debate in October 2012, moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC skillfully guided Biden and Ryan through a heated, but civil and substantive, discussion of Social Security and Medicare’s future. Ryan insisted that changes were needed to preserve the programs’ long-term viability and that current seniors and those near retirement would not see their benefits reduced.
Biden appealed openly to the Democrats’ historic image as the programs’ protectors and condemned Ryan and the GOP for wanting to partially privatize them. At one point in the debate, Biden declared: “we will be no part of a [Medicare] voucher program or the privatization of Social Security.” A few moments later, he insisted: “These guys haven’t been big on Medicare from the beginning. And they’ve always been about Social Security as little as you can do. Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?”
At the time, Democrats felt Biden had at least held his own, restoring the party’s momentum after Obama’s surprisingly listless performance eight days earlier in his first debate against Romney. And Democrats through the rest of the campaign railed against the Republican ticket as a threat to Social Security and Medicare.
But on election day, those arguments did not translate into gains for Obama and Biden among seniors or the older working adults (aged 45-64) nearing retirement. As Hogan noted, the newly passed Affordable Care Act, which generated some of its funding through savings in Medicare, was extremely unpopular at the time among older voters. Obama and Biden not only lost seniors and the older working age adults, but actually ran slightly more poorly among both groups in 2012 than they did in 2008.
In fact, no Democratic presidential nominee since Al Gore in 2000 has carried most seniors in a presidential campaign; Obama in 2008 was the only one since Gore to carry most of the older working age adults. Among older Whites, the Democratic deficit is even more pronounced: the Republican presidential nominee has carried around three-fifths of both White seniors and those nearing retirement in each of the past four elections. Biden in 2020 slightly improved on Hillary Clinton’s anemic 2016 performance with both groups, but still lost to Trump by 15 percentage points among White seniors and by 23 points among the Whites nearing retirement, according to the exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN. Biden performed especially poorly among older Whites without a college degree – an economically stressed group heavily reliant on the federal retirement programs.
Estimates by Catalist, a Democratic targeting firm, and the Pew Research Center likewise found that Trump in both 2016 and 2020 beat his Democratic opponents among both seniors and the older working adults. Like the exit polls, the Catalist data show the Republican nominees carrying about three-fifths of White seniors and older working adults in each of the past three presidential elections.
The story is similar in congressional contests. In House elections, the exit polls found Republicans winning all seniors and older working adults comfortably in the 2014 and 2022 midterm campaigns and narrowly carrying them even in 2018 when Democrats romped overall. In all three of those midterm congressional elections, Republicans carried about three-fifths of the near retirement White adults, while they also reached that elevated threshold among White seniors in both the 2014 and 2022 campaigns.
Republicans have maintained these advantages with older voters despite polls showing that most Americans trust Democrats more than the GOP to protect Social Security and Medicare, and that most Americans, especially seniors, oppose the intermittently surfacing GOP proposals to partially privatize both programs.
Politically, “Democrats have used Social Security and Medicare really a lot over the past two or three decades, maybe four decades,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “The payoff has been a lot less than Democrats have generally thought it would be.”
Could this time be different for Biden and the Democrats? Congressional Republicans have certainly provided plenty of evidence for his claim that they still hope to restructure the programs. The proposed 2023 budget by the Republican Study Committee, the members of which include about three-fourths of House Republicans, reprises the ideas of converting Medicare into a premium support system and establishing private investment accounts under Social Security, while also raising the retirement age for both programs and reducing Social Security benefits over time. And although Florida Sen. Rick Scott renounced the idea late last week, his “Rescue America” agenda did include a proposal to require Congress to reauthorize all federal programs, including Social Security and Medicare, every five years.
These ideas have precipitated an unusual degree of open Republican dissension. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly, and unreservedly, denounced the Scott plan until the Florida senator backed off. Trump recently released a video in which he declared the GOP should not cut “a single penny” of Social Security or Medicare benefits – which put him directly at odds with the three-fourths of House Republicans in the Republican Study Committee. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, bending more toward Trump’s position, seems unlikely to incorporate into the GOP budget plans the RSC’s most sweeping changes in Social Security and Medicare.
Kessler believes Biden may succeed where other Democrats have failed at hurting the GOP with the issue, and he argued that the conspicuous Republican infighting demonstrates they share that concern. “We are watching a high-profile battle that I’ve never really seen before on these issues in the Republican Party,” Kessler said. “And part of it is clearly they think it’s a problem when they didn’t years ago. If they think it’s a problem, maybe it’s a problem.”
Stuart Stevens, who served as Romney’s chief strategist in the 2012 campaign but has since become a fierce critic of the Trump-era GOP, also believes the party could face more risk over its entitlement agenda than it did back then. The reason is that he thinks the idea of sunsetting Social Security and Medicare every five years, even if Scott is trying to jettison it, may prove more immediately tangible and understandable to voters than Ryan’s complex ideas of partially privatizing both programs.
“The question I always ask myself in campaigns is ‘are you talking about something the other side doesn’t want to talk about?’” Stevens said. “That’s probably a good sign that they are losing on the issue.”
Whether Biden proves more effective than other recent Democrats at attracting older voters around Social Security and Medicare will likely pivot on whether seniors believe the GOP genuinely would cut the programs if given the power to do so, argued Robert Blendon, a professor emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health, who specializes in public attitudes about the social safety net. “If the senior community actually believes that it’s being threatened it really would affect their votes,” he predicted. But, he added, “as long as they are not threatened, the other values of seniors on top issues more and more correspond with Republicans.”
There’s no doubt about the second half of that equation. Polling has consistently found that older Whites, in particular, are more receptive than their younger counterparts to hardline Trump-era GOP messages around crime, immigration and the broader currents of racial and cultural change: for instance, about half of Whites older than 50 agree that discrimination against Whites is now as big a problem as bias against minorities, a far higher percentage than among younger Whites, according to a new national survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Older Whites are also more likely than younger generations to lack a college degree or to identify as Christians, attributes that generally predict sympathy for GOP cultural and racial arguments.
Through the 21st century, those cultural and racial attitudes among older White voters have consistently trumped any concerns they may hold about the Republican commitment to Social Security and Medicare. Despite Biden’s impassioned articulation of the case against the GOP, that didn’t change even in 2012 when Republicans placed on their national ticket a vice presidential nominee who directly embodied the GOP aspirations to reconfigure and retrench those programs.
Even small changes in seniors’ preferences could have a big impact in closely balanced states with a large retiree population like Arizona and Pennsylvania. But the entrenched GOP advantage among older voters over the past two decades suggests Biden’s hopes in 2024 may pivot less on improving with the “gray” than maximizing his vote among the “brown”: the diverse, younger generations that recoil from the same Republican messages on culture and race that electrify so many older Whites.
Source – CNN