For three years, Republicans have shown remarkable unity on one of the most important—and potentially perilous—issues of the day: entitlement reform. The consensus didn’t come easy. And the rhetoric surrounding a mid-April Republican Leadership Summit here suggests it may be falling apart. There are prospective candidates for and against Social Security reform, Paul Ryan’s Medicare reforms, and the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. If the emerging cracks in the entitlement consensus grow into full-blown fissures—and the coming dominance of super-PACs virtually ensures that they will—the divisions could have enormous implications for the 2016 general election.
For years, Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan pushed his party to get serious about entitlement reform. Spending on Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare is the main driver of our growing national debt, and the failure to address it, Ryan has long argued, is propelling the United States toward economic ruin. By 2031, spending on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the national debt will consume all the tax revenue collected by the U.S. government. For perspective, that’s as close to us in the future as George W. Bush’s election is in the past.
Though many in his party understood the math, the hazards of entitlement reform—the proverbial third rail of American politics—made them reluctant to embrace the substantive changes required to address the developing crisis. When Ryan urged his colleagues in the GOP minority to adopt the Medicare and Medicaid reforms in his “Roadmap for America,” most of them refused. The national organs of the party urged candidates to avoid talking about entitlements at all.
In August 2010, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out an “alert” warning its candidates against any discussion of the reforms. MSNBC sought a Republican to appear “and support the Paul Ryan Roadmap, therefore supporting Social Security privatization,” wrote a GOP press strategist. “Please do NOT accept this invitation; it will not end well.” The aide instructed candidates to “contact me immediately” before answering any media questions about the Roadmap.
Not everyone listened. Marco Rubio, running for Senate in Florida, the state with the highest percentage of elderly, not only chose to embrace entitlement reform as an issue, he campaigned specifically on Paul Ryan’s Roadmap. Rubio said he was “proud” to have Ryan’s endorsement in the campaign and called his reforms “a great starting point for the conversation” about fixing entitlements.
Predictably, his opponents sought to make the policy proposals an anvil to hang around his neck, Roadrunner-style. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-independent who posed the greatest threat to Rubio in the Senate race, ended his campaign with misleading, demagogic ads hitting Rubio on Social Security. They had little effect. Rubio continued to campaign on the reforms. Over the final month of the campaign, Rubio’s internal polling showed him slipping 4 points—from 32 percent to 28 percent—on the question of which candidate would best protect Social Security. But that drop didn’t prevent him from being seen as the most trustworthy candidate on the issue in the three-way race. And Rubio was elected with 50 percent of the senior vote (65 and older).
When Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in November 2010, Ryan became chairman of the House Budget Committee. He persuaded leadership to embrace his reforms and allow him to include them in the official House GOP budget. Republicans voted to overhaul Medicare by phasing in premium support payments for younger workers when they become eligible for the program. Ryan’s budget proposed reforming Medicaid by block-granting federal money and allowing for increases based on inflation and population growth. (Ryan didn’t include Social Security reforms in his plan, but promised that Republicans would deal with the popular retirement program down the road.) House Republicans passed the budget (with four defections and zero votes from Democrats) in what the Associated Press, articulating the conventional wisdom, called a “politically risky” move.
But those risks had long been overstated. And a little more than a year later, Ryan, the face of GOP entitlement reform, had been elevated to a place on the party’s presidential ticket when Mitt Romney chose Ryan as his running mate. Democrats squealed with delight at the pick and responded with a flood of attacks. Ryan’s plan would “kill” Medicare, they claimed. He would balance the budget “on the backs of seniors,” they announced. And on it went.