Trump and Ryan Agree: Let’s Dismantle Social Security

Nancy Altman
Founding Co-director, Social Security Works

Last Thursday morning, a huge crowd of reporters breathlessly covered presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan. But the real action took place the day before the meeting — and the person who “caved” wasn’t Ryan, but Trump.

In his quest for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump has attacked Hispanics and Muslims. Now that he is pivoting to the general election, seeking campaign contributions from wealthy donors and endorsements from the Republican establishment, he is signaling his willingness to go after working families.

To anyone who watched a Republican debate or one of Trump’s rallies, he unabashedly proclaimed that he would not cut Social Security. Indeed, he explicitly contrasted himself with the other Republican Presidential contenders (all of whom, except for Mike Huckabee, support benefit cuts). Given that only 17 percent of Republican voters support Social Security cuts, this was an important part of Trump’s populist message and likely a major reason for his victory.

Now that Trump has clinched the nomination and is seeking money from the GOP’s big donors, and support from the party’s establishment, however, he has changed his mind — or at least his position. (Who knows what he really thinks?)

Social Security has been a target of the Republican Party from the moment the legislation was introduced in 1935. It passed the House of Representatives essentially on a party line vote. (The telling vote was a procedural vote to kill it immediately before final passage.) In the 1936 presidential election, the Republican standard bearer, Alf Landon, vowed to repeal it if elected.

In 1953, Republicans unsuccessfully tried to convince the newly elected Dwight Eisenhower to dismantle the program. (In a 1954 private letter to his brother, Eisenhower wrote about those who want to abolish Social Security, “Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”)

The late Republican presidential nominee and Senator, Barry Goldwater, was anti-Social Security, as was the late President Ronald Reagan, at least before he became president. And, of course, President George W. Bush sought to privatize Social Security.

Revealingly, in a memorandum marked “not for attribution,” but nevertheless leaked, President Bush’s director of strategic initiatives wrote about the effort to dismantle Social Security, “this will be one of the most important conservative undertakings of modern times.” He concluded, “For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win.”

Paul Ryan and his zeal for cutting Social Security is in line with his Party’s history. Since he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, these cuts have been his top priority. In 2004, Ryan pushed a plan to privatize Social Security so extreme that even George W. Bush called it “irresponsible.” In 2007, Ryan became the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, and used that perch, as well as his subsequent position as Chairman, to draft yearly budgets that included massive cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. (In recent years, he has become a bit more politically savvy, proposing a fast-track process to force through cuts, without specifics, but his intent is certainly clear to anyone who follows the issue.)