If Mitt Romney taught Republicans anything, it’s that you can run on entitlement reform and win with seniors. Too bad Donald Trump didn’t learn that lesson.
It’s hard to position yourself as a deficit hawk, as Trump has done, and not take on the ballooning costs of Medicare and Social Security. Trump had the perfect opportunity to correct this defect when he presented his economic plans at a speech this week in Detroit. Like so much about Trump’s stumbling campaign, it turned out to be a missed opportunity.
To be sure, Trump’s economic plan contained much that should be pleasing to conservatives. Tax cuts for individuals, a moratorium on federal regulations, repeal of Obamacare, and a lower corporate tax rate are among the highlights. If there’s one bright spot for Trump, it’s that polling continues to show him with a slight lead over Democrat Hillary Clinton on the question of who can best handle the economy.
But in laying out his economic vision, Trump made no mention of entitlements.
Asked about the omission, David Malpass, a senior Trump advisor, told CNN: “Donald Trump wants the federal government to have really strong finances, but there doesn’t have to be cuts in the entitlements to get there.” What you need, he said, “is a lot of growth.”
Or, as Trump reportedly told House Speaker Paul Ryan in a closed-door meeting in May, “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.’ ”
Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the “rigged system” that Trump complains about than the oft-told lie that people can count on Social Security and Medicare to be there for them, without making the changes that will sustain those programs into the future. Trump, like so many candidates before him, apparently believes that cutting benefits is the “third rail” of American politics. If so, he missed what turned out to be a major turning point in 2012.
Romney boldly put entitlement reform alongside jobs as one of his main issues. He proposed adding to the retirement age and lowering the growth rate in benefits for those with higher incomes. He called for turning Medicare into a premium support system where existing spending is repackaged into fixed benefit amounts for each senior, enabling them to shop for coverage.
To an extent not previously seen, Romney ran on comprehensive plans to introduce competition into Medicare and put Social Security on a path to long-term solvency. He doubled down on it all by selecting Ryan as his running mate, who, as a member of the House, had endorsed a controversial policy to partially privatize Social Security.
The Democratic response was predictable: Frighten seniors. President Obama’s campaign manager argued that Romney “would end Medicare as we know it.” Democrats ran ads showing a man shoving an elderly woman in a wheelchair off a cliff. Obama himself told Florida’s seniors that, if Romney wins the election, “You’re on your own.”
When the dust settled, the usual Democratic scare tactics had lost their shock value. Romney won voters 65 and over by 12 points, 56-44. In the battleground state of Florida, with more seniors than any other state, Romney won the 65-plus age group by a whopping 17 points.
Clinton wants to expand Social Security and Medicare, but at least she’s honest enough to propose higher taxes to pay for it all. Trump needs to be equally honest and make clear there is no growth fairy to solve our entitlement woes. As Romney proved, he has nothing to fear.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.