Donald Trump Can't Save Social Security

Donald Trump

Donald Trump Can't Save Social Security

Conservatives have a point: it needs a tweak. It does not take an economics professor to tell you that a program that dispenses more than it takes in is unsustainable as it currently exists. But Donald Trump will not fix it.

For years, I had the privilege of teaching economics to West Point cadets, some of the best and brightest our nation has to offer.  There was one rule of economics that I kept returning to while teaching them: that which cannot go on will not go on. If a business practice -- or government program, for that matter -- is unsustainable, or if it loses too much money for too long, it will cease to exist. 

Which brings me to Social Security. Conservatives have a point: it needs a tweak. It does not take an economics professor to tell you that a program that dispenses more than it takes in is unsustainable as it currently exists.

But Donald Trump will not fix it. His election as president would, at best, kick the can down the road, if not make a solution impossible. Trump lacks the bipartisan goodwill and attention span to fix the problem (remember “Infrastructure Week”?), and it is an open question whether he cares enough to bother dealing with this political hot potato. Any conservative who imagines this is the man who will fix Social Security is kidding themselves. 

First, a bipartisan compromise is the only realistic path for restoring Social Security. A total ideological “victory” to gut Social Security --  to “pull it up by the roots and get rid of it,” as Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) put it -- would be political suicide and would struggle to get enough Republican votes, let alone Democratic ones. A longterm solution for Social Security also cannot happen through budget reconciliation, so even if Republicans take the Senate and the White House and keep the House, they’d need a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate to address Social Security. That’s not going to happen.

Unlike Ronald Reagan, it is impossible to imagine Trump forging a bipartisan deal to fix Social Security. His track record certainly doesn’t point toward bipartisan compromise, as the only major bipartisan legislation he signed as President was the COVID stimulus, which, even then, Congress had to twist his arm to support (and which he signed only after he had lost reelection.)

What is more, Democrats don’t like or trust Trump. By January of 2020, just 14% of Democrats approved of him. Further, it’s tough to blame Democratic politicians for their dislike of Trump -- in addition to the nicknames (Crazy Nancy, Cryin’ Chuck, Pocohantas, etc.), he riled up the crowd that ransacked the Capitol with them inside -- and even tougher to imagine them taking a political risk to alter a program their constituents love. Politicians only take risks alongside people they trust, and to say they distrust Trump is a gross understatement.

Trump’s short attention span, coupled with the intense complexity of Social Security, would pose another insurmountable challenge to fixing the program. Trump is, after all, a man who needed his own name inserted into security briefings in order to pay attention to them, regularly skipped the daily security briefing, and doesn’t like to read. He regularly misstates basic policy and budget figures. It strains credulity that such a person will sit in marathon negotiating sessions to work out intricate yet massive budgetary considerations, like whether payment increases will be based on the chained CPI or the extent of the penalty for early filing.

Finally, it’s unclear whether Trump cares about the issue. He never pushed for reform during his first term. And, while he opened the door to “cuts,” he then quickly walked back that statement, and, in both instances, spoke only in vague generalities. Trump is no Paul Ryan; he has not been focusing on this issue for decades. Given Social Security’s popularity, even touching it requires a gut-level commitment to a solution. Nothing in Trump’s history suggests such a commitment. 

That doesn’t mean America is doomed. There is a deal to be had. Its contours are pretty straightforward. In exchange for raising the $168,600 income cap on employee payroll taxes and lifting payroll tax rates, Republicans would get the retirement age raised and more stringent oversight of Social Security disability claims. Democrats would preserve the broad outlines of Social Security, and its cash flow could hit equilibrium. 

But any conservative who thinks Donald Trump will bring us to such a compromise is engaging in self-delusion at best and cognitive dissonance at worst.

My cadets liked to quote General George S. Patton to me. The man who gets things done, they told me, was the “man who devoted all he had to his duty, no matter how great the odds, no matter how seemingly insignificant his duty appeared at the time.”

Clearly, Donald Trump is not that man. Any cadet can tell you that.

About the Author

Tom Davis is a retired colonel in the United States Army and a former defense industry official. While in uniform, he taught economics at the United States Military Academy.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.