Social Security was 80 years old Friday and by general accounts more popular than ever, but the celebration was muted by the wild Republican presidential race.
If you awoke from a 30- or even a 10-year slumber to catch the Republican presidential exchanges, you might think that Social Security and Medicare, its consort in the welfare state, were unpopular because all the top GOP candidates talk about cutting the programs and/or privatizing them.
If Rip Van Winkle had dozed off during the Reagan or second Bush presidencies he would be wondering now: What happened to the Third Rail of Politics? You may remember that Reagan and George W. Bush suffered humiliating defeats when they tried to cut Social Security and that it was Reagan's abrupt conversion to the faith in 1983 that introduced the description of Social Security as the third rail, the issue that politicians touched at their peril. Bush's disaster in the summer of 2005 reinforced it.
If you trust Mike Huckabee's instincts — OK, OK, so there is not much reason to — the answer is that Social Security is still untouchable. Alone of the 16 Republican candidates, he says flatly he won't cut Social Security or try to privatize it. He has a nutty plan to "save" it that includes making prostitutes and pimps pay for it, but if you followed Huckabee for 20 years you know that his goofy political flourishes have nothing to do with the pragmatic way he will govern. Besides, he has no chance of governing.
But Huckabee's mating dance with us oldsters and the rural populists who may vote in Republican primaries is one of the fascinating phenomena of the season. He figures that his chance of surviving depends upon holding onto the religious extremists and appealing to those who love Social Security and Medicare, since the rest of the field, or those who count, seem to be going after the other side, those who despise the safety net — the very, very rich and those who heed their warnings about the nanny government.
They are the ones who will dictate the results of the primaries because they account for the vast majority of the money being spent by all the Republican candidates — maybe all but Huckabee. Huckabee has a few rich donors but he lost the big ones, like billionaire gambling czar Sheldon Adelson, to more plausible candidates.
Only 130 immensely rich families and their businesses accounted for more than half the money given to Republicans and their super PACs through June, according to Federal Election Commission figures. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose Social Security cuts and want to see benefits improved, while a study by scholars at Northwestern and Vanderbilt universities found that 36 percent of the super wealthy believe Social Security should be cut or ended and only 3 percent think it should be improved.
Huckabee counts on that overwhelming majority — those of them who might vote Republican — to wise up in the primaries, while Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and others pin their hopes on the 36 percent of the super rich who want it cut.
Christie, who squared off against Huckabee on Social Security during the Ohio debate, got his biggest gift from a Boston billionaire who wants to build a casino resort in New Jersey and who hates these socialist welfare programs.
I have a hunch Huckabee's calculations will be wrong and that the other side will prevail in the primaries. But Huckabee's predicament points to a larger one for his party. The winner will have to pivot in the general election and do it more persuasively than John McCain and Mitt Romney, who would later regret their extremist postures in the early elections in Iowa, New Hampshire and the South.
Christie is the only one who got a chance in the debate to repeat the baloney that Social Security and Medicare were driving the country into bankruptcy and that the trust fund had been raided and was full of worthless IOUs. The trust fund is invested in treasury bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. Huckabee explained to him that one reason for the declining trust fund is that only the wages of workers, not the unearned wealth of investors, are taxed. But Huckabee stopped short of saying he would tax those enormous incomes, saying he would pay for Social Security and Medicare out of a giant national sales tax, which would hit the services of pimps and prostitutes as well as doctors, retailers and yard men.
The truth is that, other than the disability trust fund, neither Social Security nor Medicare is in immediate crisis. The disability fund faces cuts in payments next year if the president doesn't transfer money from the retirement fund. The disability fund has dwindled since the huge annual growth of claimants during the eight stagnant years of the Bush presidency and the great recession of 2007-09, but disability awards have fallen sharply and terminations risen sharply since 2013, when Obamacare kicked in and poor workers in half the states, including Arkansas, gained medical help through Medicaid. In the first two quarters of this year alone, 202,486 left disability rolls.
The year 2034 is now the date Social Security retirement fund will be exhausted and Social Security payments will have to be reduced or new taxes levied. But we have been there before, in 1982. President Reagan proposed slashing benefits for early retirees, but the Senate voted 96 to 1 against him. Then Reagan rode to the rescue with a big package of tax increases. His statement at the 1983 bill signing resounds across time:
"This bill demonstrates for all time our nation's ironclad commitment to Social Security."
All it takes is another Reagan, or another Eisenhower.
Remember Ike's lecture to his brother Edgar, who had complained that the first Republican president since Hoover had not vindicated his party and dismantled Social Security: "Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history." Those who seek to do that, Ike said, are few and "stupid."