Dueling Ads: Trump and DeSantis on Social Security and Medicare

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Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis both say they do not support cuts to Social Security. But dueling ads from super PACs supporting their presidential bids say past statements or actions suggest they once did, and therefore seniors should not trust them.

Both Trump and DeSantis have, in the past, supported plans that sought to rein in future spending on both Social Security and Medicare. None of those proposed changes would have cut current benefits for seniors or those nearing retirement age, but the plans DeSantis supported, while in Congress, would have done far more to restructure the programs than Trump ever proposed, or did, as president.

We should note that few politicians say they would “cut” Social Security or Medicare, even if their proposals could result in fewer benefits for seniors. Often they frame their proposed changes as preserving or saving the popular programs. So proposals such as raising the retirement age or changing the way future benefits are calculated are presented as ways to preserve the long-term health of the programs, while opponents call them cuts to the existing programs.

Then-President Donald Trump introduces Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a campaign rally on Nov. 26, 2019, in Sunrise, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

As House Republicans earlier this year began to debate among themselves how to reduce government spending, Trump issued a warning not to include any cuts to Social Security or Medicare.

“Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security to help pay for Joe Biden’s reckless spending spree,” Trump said in a video posted to Truth Social on Jan. 20, adding that “the pain” of paying for Biden’s programs “should be borne by Washington bureaucrats, not by hard-working American families and American seniors.”

Trump listed several potential areas to cut in the budget — including aid to “corrupt” foreign countries, money spent on “climate extremism” and “waste fraud and abuse.” He added, “But do not cut the benefits our seniors worked for and paid for their entire lives. Save Social Security. Don’t destroy it.”

Although DeSantis has voted numerous times in the past for changes such as raising the age of eligibility for both programs, the Florida governor seemed to acknowledge during an interview on Fox News on March 2 that his position had shifted. DeSantis was asked about a bipartisan group — led by Sens. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, and Republican Bill Cassidy — that is discussing an overhaul of Social Security that would include gradually raising the full retirement age to 70, and changing the formula for benefits for future retirees.

“Look, I have more seniors here [in Florida] than – than just about anyone as a percentage,” DeSantis responded. “You know, we’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans. I think that that’s pretty clear.”

So, Trump and DeSantis are now in the same place, saying they don’t want to make any changes to the program. But dueling ads suggest their records tell a different story.

The Attack on DeSantis

An ad from the pro-Trump Make America Great Again Inc. PAC accuses DeSantis of supporting cuts to both Social Security and Medicare. In 2022, the PAC received more than $60 million from Trump’s leadership PAC Save America – which was more than 80% of the $73 million the MAGA PAC raised in 2022, according to Federal Election Commission documents.

“Ron DeSantis loves sticking his fingers where they don’t belong,” the ad’s narrator says. “DeSantis has his dirty fingers all over senior entitlements. Like cutting Medicare, slashing Social Security. Even raising our retirement age.”

It’s one of three ads the PAC has released attacking DeSantis on Social Security and Medicare. Trump himself has also repeatedly attacked DeSantis on this front, as he did during a speech in Iowa on March 13 in which he claimed DeSantis “fought against Social Security.”

DeSantis “wanted to decimate it and voted against it three times,” Trump said. “Voted against Social Security, that’s a bad one. … And on Social Security, while we’re at it, he wanted the minimum retirement age to be lifted to people that are 70 years old, a substantial increase over what it is right now. That’s a big increase. And he also voted to severely cut Medicare. I will not be cutting Medicare and I will not be cutting Social Security. We’ll leave the age where it is.”

DeSantis has, in the past, supported proposals that would reduce Social Security and Medicare spending, including raising the age for full eligibility. But Trump is wrong to to say that DeSantis supported the “minimum retirement age” being raised to 70. DeSantis had supported raising the “full retirement age,” also known as “normal retirement age,” to 70 years old. Currently, people are eligible for early retirement benefits at a reduced level beginning at age 62. But the “full retirement age” — the age at which someone is eligible for full benefit payments — ranges from age 66 to 67, depending on when the beneficiary was born.

When DeSantis first ran for Congress in 2012, he supported then-Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, which included an overhaul of Social Security and Medicare. Among the changes Ryan proposed was to allow Americans to invest more than one-third of their Social Security payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts, and future Medicare beneficiaries would be given a voucher to purchase their health insurance in lieu of the current fee-for-service program.

As we wrote back then, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that under Ryan’s plan, future Social Security beneficiaries might see lower benefits than currently scheduled, but that payments to seniors and those nearing Social Security eligibility would not change.

“I would embrace proposals, you know, like Paul Ryan offered, and other people have offered, that are going to, you know, provide some market forces in there, more consumer choice, and make it so that it’s not just basically a system that’s going to be bankrupt when you have new people coming into it,” DeSantis told the St. Augustine Record in August 2012.

In that interview, DeSantis — who was 33 years old at the time — said that while he wouldn’t make changes for people over 55, “What I think what we need to do for people in my generation particularly is start to restructure the program in a way that’s going to be financially sustainable, both Social Security and Medicare.”

With regard to Social Security, DeSantis said it was “probably not sustainable” to keep the full retirement age for Social Security at 67.

As for Medicare, DeSantis said, “The cost issue with Medicare is that there’s no sensitivity to price,” referring to it as “kind of an open-ended entitlement.” He said that younger people need to know in advance that “you’re going to have … Medicare,” but suggested that for “a really grand policy” they should be “contributing to that and over and above, you know, what Medicare has” paid for in the past.

“So, I think if we reformed it for people in my generation, you know, you wouldn’t see any, probably any savings immediately in the budget, but I think the long-term picture would then improve dramatically,” he said.

As a member of Congress, DeSantis voted for three nonbinding budget proposals from the conservative Republican Study Committee in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The plans, which sought to balance the budget in four to six years instead of the 10 years proposed by Ryan, recommended transitioning Medicare to a premium support system for new beneficiaries and gradually raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67. On Social Security, it proposed similarly increasing the full retirement age to 70 and indexing it for life expectancy. And it sought to move to an alternative cost-of-living formula for Social Security called the “chained CPI,” which was expected to grow at a slower rate than the traditional Consumer Price Index (former President Barack Obama once proposed to do that as well).

The Trump campaign has cited those votes, as well as subsequent ones DeSantis cast, that would have given those under age 55 a choice of traditional Medicare or premium-support payments to help pay for private health insurance once they are eligible for Medicare. As we have written, whether it would be beneficial or more/less expensive for future retirees is a matter of debate.

Whether that amounts to “cutting” or “slashing” the programs — as the Make America Great Again Inc. ad says — is a matter of opinion. But in 2013, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated the proposals in the RSC budget plan would reduce spending on Medicare by $129 billion over 10 years, and Social Security by another $126 billion. And, as DeSantis described it, the plans he supported would require future seniors to pay more out of pocket if they want health care services that were part of the “open-ended entitlement” program that is Medicare.

The Response to Trump

DeSantis has not declared his candidacy for president. But the Never Back Down PAC, founded by Ken Cuccinelli, who served as acting deputy Homeland Security secretary under Trump, seeks to persuade DeSantis to enter the presidential race.

An ad from Never Back Down pushes back on the MAGA PAC ad and Trump’s numerous attacks on DeSantis’ past positions on Social Security and Medicare.

“Trump is being attacked by a Democrat prosecutor in New York,” the narrator in the ad begins. “So why is he spending millions attacking the Republican governor of Florida? Trump’s stealing pages from the Biden-Pelosi playbook, repeating lies about Social Security. Here’s the truth from Gov. Ron DeSantis.”

It then plays a clip of DeSantis telling Fox News on March 2, “You know, we’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans.”

The narrator then pivots to Trump’s position and plays a clip from a CNBC interview on Jan. 22, 2020, in which Trump, then still president and running for reelection, was asked whether “entitlements [will] ever be on your plate.”

“At some point, they will be, we will take a look at that,” Trump responded.

“Trump should fight Democrats, not lie about Gov. DeSantis,” the narrator says.

Although the New York Times wrote about Trump’s comments in the CNBC interview under the headline, “Trump Opens Door to Cuts to Medicare and Other Entitlement Programs,” they were not quite that definitive.

Even though Trump said entitlement programs “at some point” would be on the table, it is not clear that he meant cuts would be on the table, or whether he thought economic growth would ultimately fortify the programs.

“We have tremendous growth,” Trump continued. “We’re going to have tremendous growth this next year. It’ll be toward the end of the year. The growth is going to be incredible. And at the right time, we will take a look at that. You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things, if you look, because it’s such a big percentage.”

Trump was then asked if he was “willing to do some of the things that you said you wouldn’t do in the past, though, in terms of Medicare.”

“Well, we’re going — we’re going to look,” Trump said. “We also have — assets that we’ve never had. I mean we’ve never had growth like this. We never had a consumer that was taking in, through — different means, over $10,000 a family. We never had the kind of — the kind of things that we have. Look, our country is the hottest in the world. We have the hottest economy in the world. We have the best unemployment numbers we’ve ever had.”

That position — that he would stabilize entitlement program funds through economic growth, and not though cuts to the programs — is similar to the one Trump espoused when he announced his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015.

“We’ve got Social Security that’s going to be destroyed if somebody like me doesn’t bring money into the country,” Trump said. “All these other people want to cut the hell out of it. I’m not going to cut it at all; I’m going to bring money in, and we’re going to save it.”

As president, Trump proposed several budgets that sought to reduce Social Security and Medicare spending over time. (We should note that any president’s budget proposal is largely a symbolic statement of priorities, not legislation on which Congress would vote.)

For example, in his fiscal year 2021 proposed budget, despite his claim that he would “not be touching your Social Security or Medicare,” Trump did include several proposals to reduce the growth in Medicare spending over the next 10 years by about $600 billion, as the watchdog group Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated. At the time, then-presidential candidate Biden claimed Trump’s proposal “eviscerates Medicare.” However, CRFB said the Medicare proposals “represent reductions in costs not cuts to benefits.”

As we wrote then, Trump’s proposal for Medicare included:

  • Making one payment to post-acute care providers, instead of different payments based on the site of care ($105 billion in savings over 10 years);
  • Equalizing “site-of-service payments,” meaning paying the same amount whether services are performed at hospital facilities or doctors’ offices ($175 billion);
  • Cutting payments to providers for bad debt, meaning unpaid copays/deductibles from beneficiaries ($35 billion).

CRFB said in a footnote to its analysis of the Medicare proposals that lower payments to providers “could impact quality and access in some select cases.” But it said “there is little evidence of any significant effect,” particularly for proposals that “largely focus on reducing excessive payments and spending more efficiently.” And, as we’ve noted, some of those changes were also proposed by Obama when he served as president.

Trump’s FY 2021 budget, his last as president, also proposed reductions to the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs, but not reductions to Social Security retirement benefits.

Trump didn’t propose increasing the eligibility ages for Medicare or Social Security in any of his budgets. Nor did he propose overhauls that included premium-support programs or changes to cost-of-living adjustments.

But now both Trump and DeSantis say they don’t want to change Social Security.


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