Comment: Entitlements offer Trump opening against DeSantis

Trump’s defense of Social Security and Medicare contrast with DeSantis’ past votes to cut benefits.

By Joshua Green / Bloomberg Opinion

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has had a better few months than just about anybody in Republican politics, and Donald Trump the worst. Trump hoped to reverse his fortunes and revive his moribund presidential campaign with a big event in South Carolina this weekend. A short video message his campaign released a few days ago was a positive sign; and one that should make DeSantis wary.

Trump’s typical mode of public discourse is propounding conspiracy theories and complaints about his election loss to President Biden. But in his new message, he looks straight to camera and declares, “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security.”

This message is notionally aimed at the new Republican House majority, which is spoiling for a fight over government spending and threatening a debt default as a means of gaining leverage over Biden and the Democrats. Some Republicans see it as the key to forcing cuts in Medicare and Social Security. It’s “obviously a leverage point,” Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, who runs the conservative Republican Study Committee’s Budget and Spending Task Force, told Bloomberg News. Cutting these popular programs — or “saving” them, as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy prefers to put it — is a long-standing conservative goal.

But it’s never been Trump’s goal. In fact, he has been remarkably consistent and outspoken over the years in his attacks on Republican efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare. Back in the spring of 2016, shortly after he’d sewed up the Republican nomination, Trump told me how he’d recently dressed down then-Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan over Ryan’s eagerness to cut entitlement spending: “I said, ‘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.’ ” It’s doubtful Trump was concerned about gloomy deficit projections or future solvency. He just knew a bad deal when he saw one.

A lot of Republican primary voters did, too. Although Trump’s subsequent presidency makes this a bit hard to recall, at the time he was viewed as the least conservative Republican nominee in decades. He favored lots of infrastructure spending, claimed to be stronger than Hillary Clinton in supporting LGBT rights, and he made a big deal about protecting Social Security and Medicare (something that should have obvious appeal when your party’s voters are elderly and dependent on it). Trump’s position set him apart from the other 16 Republican presidential candidates, who generally shared Ryan’s belief, prevalent among House Republicans, that cutting Social Security and Medicare was a fiscal imperative.

That’s where DeSantis comes in. As I recently argued, he’s emerged as a top Republican presidential hopeful because he has a flair for inciting the kind of cultural grievances — “woke” capitalism, mask mandates, gender identity, and so on — that inflame Republican passions. Polls show him to be Trump’s chief rival for the 2024 nomination. But DeSantis was also one of the founding members of the House Freedom Caucus, which drove the effort to cut entitlements when he was in Congress. DeSantis voted repeatedly — in 2013, 2014, and 2015 — for budgets that slashed spending on Social Security and Medicare, raised the retirement age to 70 and then indexed it to life expectancy.

That’s something DeSantis doesn’t talk about anymore, perhaps because in 2016 Trump showed just how costly doing so can be for Republicans with designs on the White House. And not just the White House: Republican strategists went into a panic when Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters stood up at a primary event and said he was ready to “cut the knot” and privatize Social Security. This was so unpopular that within weeks Masters was vowing “I will never, ever support cutting Social Security.” He lost soundly.

Trump may be diminished, but he knows how to orchestrate media attention. He’s frustrated by DeSantis’s post-midterm halo and by DeSantis’ ingratitude for the endorsement Trump gave him in 2018 that vaulted him to the Florida governorship. Changing the focus on DeSantis to the subjects the Florida governor doesn’t want to talk about is a way to take him down a peg.

“If you’re Trump, you want to drag the race to where DeSantis is uncomfortable,” says a Republican campaign strategist aligned with Trump. “That’s Social Security and Medicare cuts, that’s trade, and that’s DeSantis’s unwillingness to attack Mitch McConnell.” Trump has begun to do this already.

When a candidate has an obvious vulnerability, political strategists often say that “the attack ad writes itself.” In this case, it doesn’t have to; somebody already made it:

The “somebody” was Florida agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam, who was DeSantis’ main competitor for the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary. The ad starred Trump boasting about how he’d protect entitlement programs and featured a bunch of worried old folks fretting that DeSantis was going to yank away the Medicare and Social Security benefits they’d already “earned.”

Of course, DeSantis survived Putnam’s attacks and went on to win the primary and the governorship. But this time is different. Trump won’t be in his corner. Instead, he’ll be across the ring, squaring off.

Joshua Green is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency.”

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