Ankeny, Iowa

On the night of the Iowa caucuses, Tim Ridge, a clean-cut young man wearing a blue button-down shirt and dark slacks, made the case for Ron Paul to 135 fellow caucusgoers gathered at Northview Middle School. He said that Paul is a pro-life obstetrician who voted to “go after Osama bin Laden after 9/11.” But Paul’s economic plan was at the heart of the pitch.

“His ‘Plan to Restore America’ will cut $1 trillion in spending in the first year of his presidency, eliminate five unconstitutional departments, and balance the budget in three years,” Ridge said. “He’ll do all this without cutting a penny from Social Security, from veterans’ benefits, or from national defense.”

“Or from Medicare or Medicaid,” Ridge’s wife interjected. “Just sayin’.”

It might sound strange to hear Ron Paul, the great libertarian hope, cast as the defender of the New Deal and the Great Society. But Ridge, reading from prepared remarks, was perfectly on message. Paul makes the same case to voters during his stump speech: If we simply cut “overseas spending,” there will be enough money to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

“I want to take care of the people who become so dependent on government, even though there would have been a better way to take care of them,” Paul said at a rally in Des Moines on December 28. “You take the elderly on Social Security—there was a contract. But we can’t honor that contract if we keep spending this money overseas. So I’m for taking care of those people on Medicaid, Medicare, and the people at home on Social Security.”

That might sound too good to be true, but it gets even better, according to Paul. “Just remember the military budget is different than the defense budget. The military budget is all the weapons the military-industrial complex wants,” Paul said. If we have sound money and a “sensible foreign policy,” he continued, “we don’t have to give up anything. We don’t have to give up our defense.”

“The money we spend overseas should be the easiest money to cut,” he said at a town hall-style meeting earlier in the day. “We’re spending well over a trillion dollars a year—probably about $1.4 trillion to operate all our activities overseas.”

Paul is known for his supposedly bold economic agenda, but when it comes to entitlements—the biggest fiscal challenge our country faces—Paul panders as badly as President Obama. The entire annual defense budget, including war spending, is less than $700 billion—not $1.4 trillion as Paul claims. And by 2025—just 13 years away—Medicare, Medi-caid, Social Security, and interest on the debt will consume all federal revenues.

So what’s Paul’s plan to avert the coming fiscal crisis? He doesn’t have one. According to his campaign manager, Paul simply wants to have an “adult conversation” about how to keep Medicare and Social Security working. An “adult conversation” is exactly what Barack Obama has proposed instead of an actual plan.

Although the Texas congressman believes that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are “technically” unconstitutional and should be handled at the state level, he would like to fund the programs for decades to come. But he has no plan to keep them solvent during this extended transition.

“Ideally, we’d like to fund them for everyone over 25”—people beginning to retire four decades from now— “and will work hard to make that possible while having an adult conversation about other ways, outside of any sort of tax increase, to keep the system solvent,” Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton wrote in an email. But, unlike every other GOP presidential candidate and almost every Republican senator and congressman, Paul has failed to endorse any specific ideas to keep Medicare solvent.

“Dr. Paul will dramatically cut other big government spending so that we can take care of people who have become dependent on Social Security and Medicare while we work our way through a transition back to constitutional solutions for medical care and retirement,” Benton wrote. “One of his first elements of that transition would be to allow workers 25 and under to opt out, keep their own money, and take responsibility for themselves.”

It’s a testament to the political success of Medicare that no Republican on the national level has proposed changing it for people at or near retirement, and that even a former Libertarian party presidential candidate like Paul doesn’t want to touch it. But Medicare’s popularity is the very reason why political leaders need to begin making the case for reform now—to prepare the next generation for necessary changes.

Paul’s message leaves his followers under the impression that fundamental changes aren’t necessary if we simply cut overseas spending. “I think it’s viable, naturally,” if “we bring enough [troops] home and safeguard our own borders,” says Gregory Welsher, a Marine veteran and Ron Paul supporter, when asked about Paul’s plan. “Half of our budget goes toward militaristic spending,” says Sean Curtin, a young Iowa county co-chair for the Paul campaign, who wants the health and retirement programs block-granted to the states—something Paul has already proposed for Medicaid.

So why is Paul shrinking from a fight on entitlements? It’s not entirely clear. There has been some speculation that Paul might run as a third-party candidate. Paul has repeatedly refused to rule out a third-party bid. He draws a large portion of his support in the polls from non-Republicans. And in Iowa, he praised the Occupy Wall Street movement. “I identify with both” the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, he said.

On the other hand, Paul’s son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, threw cold water on a potential third-party run last week. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Rand Paul told a New Hampshire radio station. “If the Tea Party branches off, it will be a certain election for President Obama.”

The pandering on entitlements is all the more befuddling when Ron Paul portrays himself as unconcerned with practical politics—a libertarian prophet crying in the wilderness. At the end of a 45-minute speech at a rally in Des Moines, Paul told the crowd that he views himself as part of a “political remnant”—a biblical concept from the book of Isaiah that was promoted by the libertarian theorist Albert Jay Nock during the New Deal.

“There’s always a remnant in society, no matter how bad the society,” Paul told the crowd. “Just think of what it was like under communism. They had the Solzhenitsyns. They were part of a remnant that held the truth together.” But Ron Paul is no libertarian Isaiah. For whatever reason, he seems to have found the truth on entitlements too hard to tell.

John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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