Right-wing media figures and activists continue to call for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, even as leaders of the Republican Party deny that slashing benefits for seniors is a goal. Conservative pundits are making these demands against the backdrop of ongoing debt ceiling negotiations between the White House and the Republican-controlled House, perpetuating the myth that federal spending is out of control as an excuse to push austerity policies.
Conservative orthodoxy has long held that Social Security and Medicare need to be “reformed,” a euphemism for cutting benefits or the raising eligibility age for future enrollees of either program. Nearly 90% of people over 65 were receiving Social Security checks as of the end of last year, representing about 30% of their income, according to official figures. As of last September, more than 65 million people were on Medicare. Slashing federal spending for either of those programs is politically unpopular, and some conservatives have changed their messaging — if not their underlying ideology — as a result.
Former President Donald Trump, for example, recently released an ad attacking Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – who is expected to announce his candidacy shortly – for backing cuts to the programs. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has also promised not to include the programs in the massive spending reductions his party is seeking.
But old habits die hard, and there is no shortage of recent examples of conservative media figures, activists, and politicians who have made it clear that their goal is to weaken and undermine these programs, often under the pretext of protecting them in the long term.
Townhall editor Katie Pavlich illustrated this dynamic last week on Fox News, when she referenced the national debt as a justification for cutting benefits to seniors. “The bottom line is that for either party in Washington, if they want to actually address this $32 trillion problem, someone is going to have to propose spending -- legislation that takes on reforming social security and Medicare,” Pavlich said. “Those are the things that are driving the debt.”
Fox News anchor John Roberts showed how the Republican talking point infiltrates the network’s so-called straight news coverage.
“There’s all this talk about how to get spending under control, and I think people on both sides rationally know there is no way to get spending under control unless you start to implement reforms to things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, but neither side wants to come forward unilaterally and say, ‘Here’s our plan to do it,’” Roberts said. “There needs to be cooperation, they need to reach out across the aisle and until they do that, that debt ceiling is just going to keep bumping up and bumping up and bumping up — look at where it is now, more than $31 trillion, it's stunning.”
Earlier this month, Fox News host Mark Levin called for cuts on his radio show, even as he denied he was doing so. “Now, this isn't about cutting them,” Levin said. “This is about changing certain variables in these programs for future generations.”
“One of the proposals that was made several years ago, and I think what DeSantis voted for, and I would have voted for it too, was to raise the retirement age to 70, to grandfather in all current beneficiaries and those who will be beneficiaries within the next 10 years, so anybody 55 and older, because it's not gonna exist,” he continued.
Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk similarly advocated for reducing benefits to seniors in the future, also positioning himself as telling a harsh but necessary truth. “Current beneficiaries, I don't think anything should be touched, but yes, there need to be some adjustments for future retirees,” Kirk said. “And if you even say that, it's like the third rail.”
The right-wing outlet The Epoch Times positively covered presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s calls to gut Social Security and Medicare as well, with the headline: “Haley Promises Supporters She Will Address the Nation’s Huge Deficit.”
Speaking in a barn in the legislative district where she got her political start, Nikki Haley, former UN ambassador and South Carolina governor, said the nation needs to get its fiscal house in order.
And that work, she said, will include reforming entitlements.
“Social Security will be bankrupt in 10 years. Medicare will be bankrupt in five,” she said.
Fellow Republican presidential primary candidate Mike Pence also advocated for reductions to Social Security and Medicare, saying “we’ve got to put them on the table in the long term.”
On former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) broke from the official leadership line to consider reducing seniors’ benefits. “I believe that we have to have a discussion about raising the age of Social Security,” Gaetz said.
Right-wing site The Daily Caller was more honest than most in a story from earlier this month headlined: “Despite The Establishment’s Best Efforts, Some Republicans Want To Reform Entitlements.”
National Review, which has long positioned itself as the intellectual vanguard of the conservative movement, has also been open about their desire to weaken Social Security and Medicare.
In a blog post pegged to Trump’s attack ad, senior writer Noah Rothman defended DeSantis on the grounds that “the longtime Republican lawmaker once evinced support for longtime Republican positions: specifically, the urgent and undeniable national imperative for reforming America’s unfunded entitlement programs before they collapse.”
In another, contributor Jack Salmon called for “raising the retirement age to at least 68, indexing retirement age to life expectancy, and adopting chained Consumer Price Index [CPI] as the preferred metric for measuring annual cost-of-living adjustments.” Research shows that moving to chained CPI would reduce benefits for seniors.
Russ Vought, a Christian nationalist sympathizer and the founder of the right-wing think tank the Center for Renewing America, has been at the center of the debt ceiling debate, including pushing for massive cuts to social welfare programs. Like McCarthy, Vought’s official line is that his organization isn’t targeting Social Security or Medicare, but diverges from the House leader in acknowledging that those programs are only off the table for the short term.
“The House Republicans are not making Social Security and Medicare a fight on this debt limit,” Vought said on Fox News last month. He added that his organization’s budget targeted Medicaid, while also admitting that when it came to Social Security and Medicare, “We have to reform those programs over time.”
While Social Security and Medicare are universal programs that benefit seniors, and are incredibly politically durable as a result, Medicaid is a targeted anti-poverty program whose recipients conservatives are happy to demonize. There is no small irony that the faux-populist wing of the Republican Party — which includes Bannon and Vought — are doing their best to deny health care to the working class.
Vought frequently expresses his eagerness to slash Medicaid coverage by implementing work requirements. Public health experts call that a “terrible idea,” but it is nonetheless one that conservatives keep proposing. “You’ve been talking about the work requirements,” Bannon said to Vought on an April 24 edition of War Room.
Vought responded, arguing to get significant fiscal reductions in spending “you have to really begin to reform Medicaid, as I’ve proposed, and get people who are adults without children off of the Medicaid program.”
Bannon has repeatedly advocated for reducing the federal budget by cutting Medicaid. On April 18, he reiterated that “Medicare and Social Security are off the table,” but “you can get there” by “getting into Medicaid.” He similarly called for “massive cuts” to Medicaid earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, citing Vought’s work.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the House GOP plan to add work requirements to Medicaid would result in 10 million people losing their coverage.
The through-line from all of these statements are clear. Conservatives in government and right-wing media are laying the foundation to eviscerate the limited but important social programs for seniors and the working class. Their denials are paper-thin, when they’re even offered at all.