Changing Sides on Medicare and Social Security Is a Time-Honored Tactic

Jill Lawrence
National Journal

Republican Rep. Greg Walden’s description of the White House budget as “a shocking attack on seniors” has set off another round of who’s on first. It’s been hard to keep track of which party has the political advantage on Medicare and Social Security, and harder still to figure out where the GOP really stands.

Walden, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, set out on his own path this week by going after President Obama’s past Medicare cuts and a new spending blueprint that would charge wealthy people more for Medicare and reduce cost-of-living increases for future Social Security recipients by using a less-generous formula called “chained CPI.”

House Speaker John Boehner repeatedly belittles the two ideas as no big deal—mere starting points for negotiations toward deeper cuts. He did it again on Thursday, calling them “modest reforms.” As for Walden, Boehner said, “I’ve made it clear that I disagree with what Chairman Walden said. He and I have had a conversation about it. I expect that this is the least we must do to begin to solve the problems in Social Security.”

Former GOP Rep. Joe Scarborough was less restrained on his MSNBC show, Morning Joe. “We’ve been busting his chops for months. Put it out there. Be responsible,” he said of Obama. “The president has finally—he just tips his toe in the water, and Greg Walden comes swinging. This is shameless.”

It wouldn’t be the first instance of shamelessness on entitlements in recent years. A few examples.

September 2008: Obama pledges he will not cut cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security recipients.

October 2008: Obama attacks Republican nominee John McCain for proposing Medicare cuts as part of an ambitious plan to restructure the health care market. “Senator McCain would pay for part of his plan by making drastic cuts in Medicare: $882 billion worth. $882 billion in Medicare cuts to pay for an ill-conceived, badly thought-through health care plan,” Obama said, and added that Medicare benefits would be cut 20 percent. Fact-checkers rated the claims false – and also noted the cost savings sound a lot like what Obama signed into law in 2010.

December 2009: Another campaign, another role-reversal. McCain, running for reelection in his retiree-heavy home state of Arizona, leads the charge to kill $400 billion in Medicare cuts sought by Obama as part of the Affordable Care Act.

January 2010: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan releases one of his trademark budgets that would save money by turning Medicare into a voucher program (seniors get fixed amounts of money to buy coverage on the private market) and start the process of privatizing Social Security.

Fall 2010: Republicans across the country, many of whom support the Ryan budget that would shrink Medicare growth, campaign against the cuts in Medicare growth in the Affordable Care Act.

November 2010: Texas Gov. Rick Perry releases Fed Up, his book about Washington. In it, he calls Social Security fraudulent, unsustainable, and an unconstitutional Ponzi scheme, and proposes privatizing the program.

April 2011: Ryan unveils another budget, his “Path to Prosperity.” Social Security privatization is no longer part of the plan, but he keeps the Medicare cuts from “Obamacare.” All but four Republicans in the House vote to approve it.

September 2011: In a Republican presidential primary debate, Perry attacks Social Security as “a monstrous lie.” Rival Mitt Romney says, “I'm absolutely committed to keeping Social Security working” and “fiscally sound and stable” for 75 years. His campaign focuses mostly on means-testing and raising the retirement age as ways to do that.

August 2012: Ryan, by now Romney’s vice presidential running mate, does an about-face and attacks the Medicare cuts in the Affordable Care Act. “The biggest, coldest power play of all in 'Obamacare' came at the expense of the elderly,” he says at the GOP convention. “Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama.” At the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton says Ryan had “some brass” to go down that road “because that $716 billion is exactly, to the dollar, the same amount of Medicare savings that he had in his own budget.”

November 2012: In the wake of Obama’s reelection victory, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell says chained CPI and Medicare means-testing could get the GOP interested in new tax revenue.

December 2012: House Speaker John Boehner presses hard for chained CPI in inconclusive budget talks with Obama.

March 2013: Ryan, decoupled from Romney, releases a budget that once again retains what now amounts to some $800 billion in Medicare cuts from the Affordable Care Act, while assuming repeal of the rest of the act. His new budget also includes an additional $129 billion in savings from turning Medicare into a voucher program. The House passes the Ryan budget, 221-207. Among those voting yes: Greg Walden.

April 2013: Obama releases a budget that includes chained CPI and Medicare means testing, and Walden reaps the whirlwind.