It seems like a lifetime ago that Republican National Committee chief Reince Priebus brokered a meeting between the unexpected presidential nominee Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to try iron out their differences. But it was just a little less than a year ago in a world that seems more and more distant by the minute. They spoke of many things, with Ryan desperately trying to convince Trump that he needed to adopt the GOP agenda and Trump telling him he didn't know what he was talking about. Bloomberg reported one particular exchange in the meeting that stuck in my mind:
According to a source in the room, Trump criticized Ryan’s proposed entitlement cuts as unfair and politically foolish. “From a moral standpoint, I believe in it,” Trump told Ryan. “But you also have to get elected. And there’s no way a Republican is going to beat a Democrat when the Republican is saying, ‘We’re going to cut your Social Security’ and the Democrat is saying, ‘We’re going to keep it and give you more.’”
Trump may not have realized it, but Republicans have never won the presidency by explicitly saying they were going to make cuts to Social Security. They have always used euphemisms, saying they were going to "privatize it" or promising to "save it" from itself. The reason Democrats continually win the day (if not the office they are vying for) is because people don't trust Republican double-talk on the subject and for good reason. They have been trying to destroy Social Security since it was enacted.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote in "The Coming of the New Deal" that President Franklin Roosevelt knew that creating a dedicated funding stream gave workers the "legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions." He said, "With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program." Schlesinger also noted that Republicans and business leaders at the time were appalled, with one warning that the program would "undermine our national life by destroying initiative, discouraging thrift, and stifling individual responsibility."
Donald Trump's comment in that meeting last year that he agreed with Ryan on a "moral basis" indicated that he was on the same page as those earlier plutocrats even if he sings a different tune in public. The rest of the quote suggests that his commitment to saving the program was solely a sales pitch to his marks. It's simply another one of the cons he was very proficient at during his business career and is now proving himself to be willing and able to use as president. (Just read his Twitter feed from the last four years and compare it with what he says today if you don't believe that he conned his voters.)
The Republicans will never give up on trying the destroy the safety net. It's one of their fundamental organizing principles along with promoting tax cuts. Other issues may come and go but these two are perennial. And according to the Associated Press, the administration has decided to scrap Trump's previously announced tax plan in favor of a new "reform" agenda that will accomplish both the dismantling of the Social Security guarantee and the GOP's cherished tax cuts for the wealthy.
The Trump team is also, unsurprisingly, being dishonest about its intentions. Social Security expert Nancy Altman described this move as a Trojan horse but considering Trump's ostentatious promises to protect the program, perhaps it's better described as a garden variety bait and switch. Simply put, Trump and his team are planning to completely abandon Social Security's dedicated funding stream from the Federal Insurance Contributions Act payroll deduction and pay for the program with general revenue. They will sell this as a tax cut for workers, which is what it will look like on the paycheck.
But Trump's rumored innovation is to replace the money with a form of value-added tax, which means that typical workers, who spend most of their money on consumer goods, will still pay taxes; they will just lose their retirement guarantee. Rich people will get their tax cuts and don't need Social Security anyway. It's a GOP win-win.
What this means is that Social Security will become part of the normal budget process, subject to the whim of each Congress as legislators appropriate money for wars and pet projects and their favorite form of fearmongering nonsense: "deficit reduction." It is inevitable that the basic contract all workers have with their government — that they will commit a portion of their wages to the Federal Insurance Contributions Act account and will be guaranteed a pension 40 years from now — will be declared null and void. That contract has resulted in payouts to several generations of workers since its inception in the 1930s, no thanks to the Republicans who have consistently tried to find ways to dismantle it.
Although the assaults on the safety net programs have been relentless, at each turn Americans have fought back, the most recent example being when former President George W. Bush tried to privatize the Social Security system by diverting the funds to Wall Street. That plan was thwarted by activism and organization and the epic stock market crash of 2007 took it off the table for the foreseeable future.
As Schlesinger wrote about the final passage of Social Security:
The federal government was at last charged with the obligation to provide its citizens a measure of protection from the hazards and vicissitudes of life. One hundred and ten years earlier, John Quincy Adams had declared that "the great object of the institution of civil, government" was "the progressive improvement of the condition of the governed." With the Social Security Act, the constitutional dedication of federal power to the general welfare began a new phase of national history.
It's the Republicans' 75-year experience with Social Security and 40-year history with Medicare that made them lose their minds over the Affordable Care Act. They know very well that social insurance benefits are nearly impossible to take away once they are enacted. People want them and will pay for them. And we just watched them meet that problem head-on once again with the Obamacare repeal attempt. And once again they were pushed back by citizens who believe they have a right to basic social insurance that is granted in every other industrialized nation on the planet.
But it looks like these Republicans, under the leadership of the fake populist and totally incompetent Donald Trump, may be stupid enough to take on Social Security again. They just love to tilt at this windmill and they get caught in the blades every time.