Ahead Of N.H. Primaries, Republican Candidates Talk Social Security Reform

Download Audio
Clockwise, from top left: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Donald Trump, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (AP)
Clockwise, from top left: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Donald Trump, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (AP)

In the windup to the New Hampshire presidential primaries, the Republican candidates are rolling out proposals on Social Security reform that can vary widely in substance and in tone. Voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state are paying close attention.

For Bob Raas, a retired window-washer from Barrington, Social Security is a lifeline.

“I don’t have a pension, I don’t have a union, so I depend on Social Security,” Raas said, as he waited for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to make an appearance in Portsmouth. “But to lose it is no good. I’ll be on the bread line, I’ll be begging.”

Raas is well aware that Social Security is projected to go broke in less than two decades. And Social Security is rising as a voting issue here, as the state’s median age skews upwards, according to Saint Anselm College political scientist Chris Galdieri.

“In recent years the Republican base has been getting older and older. And these are folks for whom these are things that really do affect their lives,” Galdieri said. “There’s a reason [Social Security] is called the third rail of American politics. I think a lot of these Republicans are sort of dancing around that third rail.”

Not all of them though. With dour humor, Ohio Gov. John Kasich took firm hold of that third rail at an economic forum in Concord last month.

“We can’t balance the budget without entitlement reform, what are we kidding?” Kasich asked his audience. “Now what if I told you your initial benefit was going to be somewhat lower in order to save the program, would that drive you crazy? Would it upset you?”

Someone in the audience replied,  “Hmm, just a little bit.” And Kasich replied, “Well you’d get over it. … And you’re going to have to get over it."

Democrats quickly pounced on those remarks. By way of contrast to Kasich’s blunt style, Republican front-runners Ben Carson and Donald Trump are avoiding such skirmishes with a sunnier proposition for Social Security’s future.

“I would love for people to voluntarily opt out of it, that would be very nice indeed,” Carson said on CNN recently.

And in Manchester last month, Trump said he and his billionaire friends would gladly forego their Social Security benefits: “You know a lot of people would give it up for the good of the country. It’s almost like, ‘Give it up.’ "

But observers say the idea of rich and patriotic people volunteering to return Social Security benefits to the system won't really help it out.


Andrew Biggs was research director at the Social Security Administration under former President George W. Bush and is now an analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“There’s so few Donald Trumps and Bill Gates and dot com millionaires and hedge fund traders,” Biggs said. “There just aren’t enough of those people to make a difference.”

So, some of the GOP candidates, like Kasich, are forging ahead. Many are calling for a gradual rise in the retirement age. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is pitching a partial privatization of the program — although most of the other candidates now say the once-popular idea isn’t viable anymore.

A few advocate an imposed version of what Trump and Carson are talking about: a kind of means-testing — so high-earners would see more modest benefits than lower-income earners.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham supports a means-test mandate, although he doesn’t phrase it so starkly on the stump in New Hampshire. Speaking to a politically mixed crowd in Manchester recently, he wrapped the message in a personal story.

When he was young, he said, his mother died.

“Fifteen months later my dad dies. I’m 22 my sister is 13,” he said. “If it had not been for Social Security survivors' benefits, we would not have made it. So when I talk about Social Security I know what I am talking about.”

And third rail or not, some Republican voters do seem willing to consider significant changes in Social Security.

“I don’t have a problem with raising the age limit, it’s been done before,” said Pat Mongold, a retiree, who lives in North Hampton. “I think a means-testing, I’m OK with that. Those that don’t need it, fine, those that do, fine, don’t hurt them.”

But Mongold added that she wants to hear a lot more from the candidates on the issue — and because this is New Hampshire, she wants to hear it in person -- before she’d be willing to say any of them has the right solution for Social Security.

This segment aired on November 2, 2015.


More from WBUR

Listen Live