In the middle of Mike Huckabee's presidential announcement, his populism took him to a land many Republican candidates fear to tread.
"There are some who propose that to save the safety nets like Medicare and Social Security, we ought to chop off the payments for the people who have faithfully had their paychecks and pockets picked by the politician, promising them that their money would be waiting for them when they were old and sick," said Huckabee. "My friend, you were forced to pay for Social Security and Medicare. For 50 years, the government grabs the money from our paychecks and says it'll be waiting for us when we turn 65. If Congress wants to take away someone's retirement, let them end their own congressional pensions, not your Social Security."
As with a lot of the speech, the words hung together splendidly but the math was TBD. Congressional pensions are far more attractive than plain old Social Security–members can start cashing out at age 55, for example. Their total cost quivers in the shadow of Social Security, which represents close to $900 billion of yearly government spending. The Huckabee line sounded fair, though, and it got at a truth that the GOP's economic libertarians can't stand. Even among conservative voters, Social Security is popular.
Very popular, actually. Polling never shows Republican voters–or even Tea Party-supporting voters, who skew old–in favor of cutting Social Security. In 2013, when hope of a vague "entitlements" deal still thrived in Washington, Pew found that only 17 percent of Republicans thought Social Security should be cut as part of a deal. Twice as many, 35 percent, said that Social Security spending should be increased, an idea proposed then by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and now identified with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Most Republican leaders respond to these results by leaving Social Security retirement payments alone, as Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan did in his budgets. Most of the Republicans who speak out on Social Security call for raising the retirement age. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham likes to joke that "people are living like Strom [Thurmond, the former senator who lived 100 years]," as he explains the need for a higher retirement age. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie based his April visit to New Hampshire on some "straight talk" town halls about raising the age and means testing.
Yet the club of Republicans who want no changes to the retirement program can fit on a paddleboat. Huckabee's intellectual partner of the moment is Donald Trump, who has told audiences that he wants to grow the economy so fast that no entitlement would need to be reduced. "People have been paying in for years," he said last month. "They're gonna cut Social Security. They're gonna cut Medicare. They're gonna cut Medicaid. I'm the one saying that's saying I'm not gonna do that! I'm gonna make us so rich you don't have to do those things."
What's gone unmentioned by both men–and what doesn't necessarily need to be part of a conversation about giving people what they were "forced to pay" for– is Social Security disability payments. In January, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul got singed for saying that "half" of the people on disability could just as well walk off their pain and leave the dole. A few hours into his campaign, Huckabee has not broached the topic. It may be a test of how far populism will take him.