Bill Cotterell: Rick Scott’s Social Security scare is a non-starter
The senator just given us new proof — as if any were needed — that touching this most sacred of entitlements is fatal to any politician’s reelection plans.
It’s been 40 years since a top aide to the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill dubbed Social Security “the third rail” of American politics, and Florida’s own Republican Sen. Rick Scott has just given us new proof — as if any proof were needed — that touching this most sacred of federal entitlements is fatal to any politician’s reelection plans.
Scott, who was never known to back down from a conservative position in eight years as governor and nearly five in Washington, had long advocated “sunsetting” all federal programs every five years. But in an op-ed column in the Washington Examiner last week, he finally conceded that “Social Security, Medicare, national security, veterans’ benefits and other essential services” should not have to re-justify their existence.
There was never any chance that an all-inclusive examination of budget items would come about. Congress doesn’t really want to do anything about deficits and the national debt in Washington, except complain about them back home.
Coming from the chairman of the GOP’s National Republican Senatorial Committee, not to mention a senator from retiree-rich Florida, Scott’s idea horrified his Republican colleagues in Washington. The Democrats loved it, though — not as something they might actually do, but something they will use against GOP opponents in 2024.
Scott already was one of the least-liked guys in the Republican caucus for favoring such heresy as term limits for members. The Democrats, who’ve been scaring old people about Social Security and Medicare since Scott was just getting into the hospital business, naturally conflate his review-everything suggestion into a cut-everything mandate.
Doing that requires the kind of rhetorical sleight of hand all too common in Washington. Scott didn’t say he wants to cut social programs, just evaluate them. But that’s what campaign consultants call a distinction without a difference.
The difference between “Let grandma starve to death” and “Let’s consider whether we should let Grandma starve to death” is too fine a distinction for a bumper sticker or 30-second TV spot. If a Scott review ever came to a vote, the roll call might go something like, “All opposed signify by saying ‘Nay.’ All in favor signify by resigning, quitting politics and joining the witness-protection program.”
But there’s really no limit to what the Democrats will do to exploit this stuff, particularly in Florida.
Once upon a time, state Rep. Tom Feeney of Oviedo voted for a resolution urging Congress to balance the budget, every dime of it. Feeney became Jeb Bush’s running mate in 1994. The Democrats ran a barrage of automated phone calls to retirees in Palm Beach County and Tampa Bay, saying Bush wanted to take away their main source of income.
And how did they get such an idea?
Well, Bush’s running mate had once voted in the state House to ask Congress for a balanced-budget amendment, and if everything was on the table, that would include Social Security. Well, we all know Congress always heeds resolutions from Florida legislators, and the lieutenant governor of Florida (if Bush and Feeney had won) is instrumental in federal budget policy — so, yep, a vote for Jeb was a vote to hurt old people.
The Democrats aren’t about to let go of even the Scrooge Lite suggestion Scott trotted out last Friday. President Biden didn’t mention any names in his State of the State speech, but scorched “some Republicans” for wanting to mess with Medicare and Social Security. When GOP members booed, he interpreted that as a concession that those programs were off the table.
Scott ran some TV ads in the Tampa Bay area as Biden visited, claiming the administration had swiped some $280 billion from Medicare.
The senator just handed Democrats an issue to batter him with next year. Now all they need is a plausible candidate to whack him with it.
Finding a big leaguer to run against Scott is going to be tough, maybe impossible, for Florida Democrats. But at least they can derive some satisfaction from having made him back down on a major position.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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