Trump burns after touching Social Security

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Former President Trump’s comments about “cutting” Social Security have given President Biden a wide opening while also underscoring how the entitlement program has become a third rail in politics.

In an interview with CNBC, Trump said that “a lot of things can be done in terms of entitlements, in terms of cuts.”

His campaign quickly clarified that the former president only wants to reduce waste, but his initial comments created fragments that Biden will use against him between now and November and that Democratic congressional candidates will also seize on.

Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist in Arizona, said the ambiguity of Trump’s latest comments could mitigate their impact.

“But in some ways, that doesn’t matter because … it’s recorded, and the Biden campaign will almost certainly use that tape a lot, and the Trump campaign will have to spend time and money to refute that,” he said.

Democrats have repeatedly attacked Republicans for suggesting cuts to Social Security. As recently as 2022, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) hit his Republican opponent, Blake Masters, with an avalanche of negative ads for proposals to reform Social Security, Marson noted.

Arizona has the largest population of retirees among the 2024 swing states in a rematch between Biden and Trump, underscoring its importance. But it could also be an important factor elsewhere, said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and partner at Firehouse Strategies.

“Most voters will be older, and anyone currently in these programs is set to receive them in the next decade or so,” he said. “So I would say they will be important everywhere.”

Conant said Trump, who often speaks spontaneously in interviews and rallies, needs to be “very careful not to make similar gaffes in the future.”

“Unless you really want to reform rights, in which case you need to go on the offensive and explain why your proposals would do no harm,” Conant said.

The withdrawal of the comments suggests that Trump may simply want to signal that he supports the status quo, a position that both Conant and Marson said would be politically safer.

“I think the majority of the electorate doesn’t care about specific policies. If you say you’re going to protect Social Security, that’s enough. You don’t have to have a plan,” Marson said.

President Biden promised to “protect and strengthen” Social Security and Medicare in his State of the Union address earlier this month, while also pledging to make the rich “pay their fair share.”

American workers currently pay Social Security tax on earnings up to $168,600, but pay no taxes beyond that amount. Biden has also proposed taxing wages above $400,000 to help shore up Social Security, meaning the bracket between $168,600 and $400,000 would not face an increase.

Social Security is projected to become insolvent by 2033, at which point cuts could become inevitable without congressional action. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that these cuts to the program to remain solvent could cost a typical retired couple $17,400 per year.

Maya MacGuineas, chairwoman of the bipartisan group, said none of the major presidential contenders are taking a serious approach to the issue.

“I would describe both Trump and Biden [approach] as reckless, a procrastinator, a demagogue and dangerous to the health of the program,” he said.

“They are both so busy attacking each other that during their tenure they have done nothing to come up with a plan and policies to save the program from insolvency, which should be the number one priority.”

MacGuineas said Biden’s latest budget did not present a coherent plan to increase funding for Social Security, despite his commitments to protect the program.

He criticized politicians for trying to score political points on the issue, but also said the media and advocacy groups were too alarmist when any politician even suggested cutting benefits, making reasonable debate on the issue nearly impossible.

“It is a provocative topic. And everyone has conspired to make it more provocative in a way that scares older people and postpones real, important changes,” she said.

The Alliance of Retired Americans, which endorsed Biden in 2024, is among the advocacy groups that seized on Trump’s comments this week. Its chief executive, Richard Fiesta, noted that Trump’s past comments send similar signals.

during a interview with CNBC In 2020, Trump said he would “take a look at that” when asked about the future of social rights, and in a book from 2000 called Social Security a “huge Ponzi scheme” and suggested raising the eligibility age.

Fiesta said his group opposed any effort to reduce benefits over time and believes the program can be fixed by increasing revenue, as Biden proposes.

“We firmly believe that our security benefits are modest at best,” he said, noting that the average recipient receives about $1,800 per month. “So the idea of ​​cutting benefits or raising the retirement age… is just unfair to workers.”

In a statement to The Hill, the Trump campaign declined to offer details about its current plans to fix Social Security, but said it would protect entitlements.

“President Trump kept his promise to protect Social Security and Medicare in his first term, and President Trump will continue to strongly protect Social Security and Medicare in his second term,” Karoline Leavitt, the campaign’s national press secretary, said in a statement. a statement sent by email. .

Biden’s campaign said the president’s past comments on the issue speak for themselves.

Joseph Antos, a senior fellow in health care and retirement policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said neither candidate would be able to avoid the problem if they end up in the White House, and they would need to show more ideological flexibility to get anything done.

He said both Trump and Biden were offering “nonsense phrases” and needed to figure out how to talk about “restructuring” Social Security and Medicare in a way that wouldn’t stoke fears of taking away benefits.

“Whoever is president, will he be able to keep his wits and have enough political influence (which I assume neither of us would have) to get real legislation that starts to introduce some serious but gradual reforms to both programs?” he asked. saying.

But Antos said Trump had little political advantage in raising the issue before the election, casting doubt on Biden’s ability to agree to a debate.

“If there was a debate… then I would have to dig into some of these things, so I could argue with Biden,” he said of Trump.

“Therefore, you should not waste your time investing in learning a few lines about the details of the policy.”

Joseph Choi contributed.

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