Ron Paul used to be a resolute libertarian when it came to entitlements. During his 1988 presidential bid, he called them “unconstitutional” and said he wanted them gone. As recently as 2000 he signed on to a Republican Liberty Caucus statement holding that “the federal entitlement to Medicare should be abolished.”
But this campaign season, Paul has moderated his tone. Oddly enough, he’s in some respects weaker on the issue than the leading Republicans.
Take Paul’s official fiscal-reform plan, the “Plan to Restore America.” It has many merits — it eliminates five cabinet departments, slashes $1 trillion in spending, and purportedly will balance the budget in year three of his presidency with no tax increases. But its entitlement reforms merely tinker around the edges of the problem: He’d distribute funding for Medicaid and other welfare programs to the states in the form of block grants, keep the current Social Security system for retirees and near-retirees, and allow young people to opt out of Social Security if they want to.
This isn’t too different from what front-runner Mitt Romney, an establishment Republican from Massachusetts, has proposed — with the exception that Romney’s plan would actually take steps to fix Social Security (e.g., he would increase the retirement age and reduce payments to wealthier beneficiaries) instead of leaving it as is and giving young people the option to leave it. Romney has endorsed allowing private plans to compete with Medicare as well, whereas the text of Paul’s plan does not even contain the word “Medicare” (and the accompanying budget tables hew closely to standard projections of how much the program will cost without reform). Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, would transition Social Security to a personal-account system, in addition to block-granting welfare programs and allowing private plans to compete with Medicare.
According to Gary Howard, Paul’s press secretary, the candidate is “interested in pursuing” deeper entitlement reforms — including raising the retirement age and limiting benefits to the rich — despite not including them in his plan. “Dr. Paul also supports Medicare reforms that give senior citizens more control over, and responsibility for, their own health care,” Howard says. “He would support the type of reforms championed by his colleague Paul Ryan, and he would also support expanded access to Medicare Health Savings Accounts.” Howard also emphasizes that Paul is the only candidate to support allowing the young to completely opt out of Social Security.
But if Paul’s support for entitlement reform is deeper than the “Plan to Restore America” would suggest, the candidate doesn’t seem too eager to make it known. To the contrary, Paul has taken to saying publicly that cuts elsewhere in the budget can make entitlement reform unnecessary, at least in the near term. After the New Hampshire primary he said that if we “cut this overseas spending, at least we might be able to allow the Social Security beneficiaries to get their checks and medical care be provided.”
And last year, when PBS asked him how he’d balance the budget, he detailed his cuts to overseas spending and cabinet departments, and then said, “You don’t have to go and cut health care or medical — or Social Security — in order to start getting our house in order.” When the interviewer claimed Paul had “talked about dramatically scaling down or reforming Medicare and Social Security,” he corrected her — “Well, I haven’t talked a whole lot about that” — and reiterated his desire to cut military spending and allow young people to opt out of Social Security. When the interviewer essentially repeated the question, again claiming that he’d spoken of making serious changes to Medicare, he again corrected her and emphasized his opt-out plan.
Perhaps the most obvious trace of his old libertarian self is a belief that entitlements are unconstitutional. But this time around, he wants to “work our way out” of them.
A candidate who downplays entitlement reform should trouble not only libertarians, but anyone with a basic sense of the U.S.-budget reality. Projections indicate that without reform, entitlements will consume all American tax revenue by 2049 or even earlier – meaning that even if the government spends money on nothing else, at this point entitlements will require a steady stream of borrowing or tax hikes. Even if a President Paul succeeded in implementing all of the other cuts he wanted — a far-fetched scenario, even setting aside the assumption of a President Paul — he would be derelict in his duty if he left the task of fixing entitlements to a future administration.
The Paul campaign has not yet set a “time frame” for when a President Paul would tackle entitlement reform, Howard says. The Paul administration’s first priority would be to get the “Restore America” plan passed, which in turn would jumpstart the economy. “Obviously, achieving these goals will make it much easier, and politically feasible, to begin to reform Social Security and Medicare, which both require serious reform,” Howard says.
So, what explains the new cautious tone? Some have suggested that Paul’s views are bending to the practical reality that we’re stuck with entitlements — but that explanation doesn’t square with his unapologetically unrealistic plans in other areas. His proposals to eliminate five cabinet posts and slash overseas spending to the bone are so far-fetched that they wouldn’t be useful even as a starting point for negotiations. Another possibility is that he’s pandering the way any successful politician does — Grandma can have her Social Security check if we just cut this damn foreign aid — but he had no problem telling Republican-primary voters that Osama bin Laden shouldn’t have been killed.
The campaign, however, seems to think there hasn’t been too dramatic a change. “Congressman Paul still views these entitlements as unconstitutional and would like to see them phased out. He has in no way abandoned the idea of getting the government out of health care as well as reforming, and eventually totally eliminating, the federal role in entitlements,” Howard says.
But then: “Much like Senator Rand Paul’s plan, which is also supported by leading fiscal conservatives such as Senators Jim DeMint and Mike Lee, Dr. Paul’s plan preserves Social Security for those elderly retirees who have come to depend on it, while providing real spending cuts in other areas.”
— Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor of National Review. Twitter: RAVerBruggen.