As former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley earns praise from some corners of the GOP for her willingness to tackle the financial health of Social Security, former President Donald Trump is trying to punish her for it.
It’s the latest example of how the GOP’s seesawing approach to the program’s looming solvency crisis is surfacing in this primary – with the former president, who previously used the issue to attack Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now trying to blunt Haley’s momentum in the final days before voting begins.
Trump’s campaign released a new ad on Thursday targeting his rival Republican over her plans to reform government retirement benefits. Haley’s team shot back that the former president’s record undermines his claims that he is a champion of the popular entitlement program.
And the back-and-forth over Social Security isn’t reserved to the two leading candidates in New Hampshire. One of the most heated exchanges of Wednesday night’s CNN debate between DeSantis and Haley in Iowa, where Trump has dominated polling, occurred when the discussion veered to Social Security.
Social Security has long been a thorny issue for presidential candidates, especially in general elections, when the two nominees are in a heated race to win over reliable senior voters. But for Republicans, Trump’s arrival altered the dynamics of how the GOP talks about the program.
For decades, conservative budget hawks have attempted to tinker with it to keep it solvent. That changed in 2016, when Trump vowed to protect Social Security and Medicare, forcing Republicans to retreat from a bedrock position.
Conservatives have often expressed wariness of the program since it began in the 1930s. But as Americans have embraced Social Security – 79% opposed reducing the size of benefits in an AP-NORC poll conducted in March – opponents have changed tactics from trying to eliminate the benefit to cutting it or making drastic changes. An effort by then-President George W. Bush to privatize the program during his second term was met with strong resistance and ultimately failed.
Today more than 70 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, many of whom depend on it for basic living costs. In October, the Social Security Administration announced that recipients would receive an annual cost-of-living adjustment of 3.2% in the next year – smaller than recent adjustments.
As of now, the main fund for Social Security is projected to be depleted by 2033, according to a Social Security Administration report. Once that happens, the fund’s reserves will only be able to cover about 75% of the “scheduled benefits,” the report warned.