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 “PlantoRestoreAmerica.” 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.