Republicans target Social Security (again)

     Members of progressive groups hold a news conference in front of the N.J. Statehouse to urge candidates in a special U.S. Senate election to voice support for Social Security benefit increases in August, 2013. (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

    Members of progressive groups hold a news conference in front of the N.J. Statehouse to urge candidates in a special U.S. Senate election to voice support for Social Security benefit increases in August, 2013. (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

    Since Hillary Clinton is hammering every Republican in the polls – right now, she’d bury Marco Rubio by 14 points, Jeb Bush by 17, and everyone else by 19 or 20 – you’d think that her rivals would be looking for ways to close the gap with swing voters. Instead, at least three of them are doing something so politically dumb, it boggles the mind.

    Chris Christie and Bush are taking fresh aim at Social Security, the most popular government program since the New Deal.

    They want to hike the retirement age. Christie says that eligiblity for full benefits should be raised from age 67 to 69, and that eligibility for starter benefits should be raised from age 62 to 64. Bush says it should be raised “in relatively short order,” but offers no specifics. A third hopeful, Rubio, has long been talking about an age eligibility hike.

    Apparently these guys didn’t get the memo: Older folks – who have voted heavily Republican during the Obama era – hate the idea of raising the retirement age.

    According to a ’13 national survey,  58 percent of Americans over age 50 oppose raising the threshold when retirees can qualify for full benefits; only 29 percent support it. And only 10 percent say that full eligibility should come after age 67 (the current ceiling). As one new retiree told the polling firm, “I contributed to it. It’s my money. The plan was, ‘Contribute this and you get this.’ You can’t change the rules.” Other polls say the same thing. Even Fox News, in a ’13 survey, said that 54 percent of Americans – regardless of age – oppose efforts to raise the eligibility threshold.

    By the way, Christie is also trying to resurrect a long-dead idea: nixing Social Security benefits for the most affluent older Americans. This is called “means-testing.” Aside from the fact that this idea is nuts on the policy front – Social Security provides universal coverage, and once you start means-testing, conservatives will keep trying to whittle down the eligible income brackets – it’s also political suicide. According to the Fox News poll, only 36 percent of Americans support means-testing; 59 percent say that “everyone should receive equal benefits.”

    So the big question is why Christie and Bush, during the past week, have targeted Social Security.

    Christie is bottom-dwelling in the Republican polls with Ben Carson, so clearly he has needed to say something to get back in the game; targeting Social Security is still popular with a segment of the right-wing primary season electorate. It’s an anti-government thing.

    But, more broadly, we have this fundamental ideological fact: Dissing the program has been part of the GOP’s DNA ever since it was created in 1935. As New Jersey Republican Sen. A. Harry Moore warned that year, while urging Congress to vote no, Social Security “would take all the romance out of life. We might as well take a child from the nursery, give him a nurse, and protect him from every experience that life affords.” Such was the GOP mentality at a time when senior poverty in America was endemic.

    Seventy-five years later, GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry spoke in the same spirit when he complained that “Social Security is something that we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now.” He also assailed it as “a monstrous lie…a Ponzie scheme,” and declared that “by any measure, Social Security is a failure.” Perry was the frontrunner when those remarks were circulated in 2011; those remarks contributed to his precipitous plunge.

    The bottom line is, Republicans who talk about raising the retirement age merely underscore the GOP’s heartless image. Economists say that pushing back eligibility – by two years on the front end, and two years on the back end – would constitute, on average, a 10 percent cut in benefits. Lower-income and working-class Americans would be disproportionately hurt, because, on average, they don’t live as long as their more affluent fellow citizens (and are thus less likely to make it to Christie’s proposed age 69); and they generally retire earlier, because their work is more physical than the affluent norm.

    But hey, if Republicans want to bang away anew at Social Security, I’m sure Hillary would welcome it. As Rich Galen, a Republican strategist and communicator, once told me, “On this issue, we have a long history of getting the you-know-what kicked out of us.”

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.