On Social Security, GOP’s Ron Johnson walks the third rail
August 22, 2022
While there is some debate about the origin of the phrase, the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill is often credited with labeling Social Security as the “third rail” of American politics. The idea is relatively simple: Social Security is so popular and seen as such a pillar of modern American life that officials targeting the program are putting their political lives at risk.
With this in mind, it’s amazing to see so many Republicans volunteering this year to test the underlying principle.
In Arizona, for example, Republican Senate hopeful Blake Masters recently approved Social Security privatization, despite working in a state with quite a few retirees. Similarly, in Florida — another state that is home to a handful of retirees — Republican Senator Rick Scott has been surprisingly aggressive about putting Social Security at risk.
But in Wisconsin, Republican Senator Ron Johnson has been even more arrogant in throwing caution to the wind, recently approving the idea of moving Medicare and Social Security into Congress’s discretionary budget — thus ending guaranteed guarantees. and automatic benefits – where they could be imposed annual discounts.
As The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this weekend, the controversial GOP senator has had opportunities to voice his support for the existing Social Security system, but he continues to move in the opposite direction.
Weeks after he said Social Security and health care should be subject to annual budget talks — a stance that dealt a political blow from his enemies — Johnson weighed in again on America’s signature social insurance program. During a campaign stop on Wednesday in Rice Lake, Johnson said Social Security was “improperly set up” and the system’s funds had invested better in the stock market.
As part of the same remarks, the incumbent senator, faced with a tough reelection battle, claimed he wanted to “save” Social Security, apparently by uprooting it through some sort of privatization plan. (I say “sort of” because Johnson didn’t specify exactly how he would overhaul the system.)
I’ve long wondered whether a senatorial candidate in a battlefield could win a campaign as an open critic of Social Security. As Johnson takes a walk on the third rail, Wisconsin voters will help answer the question in 11 weeks.
Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show”, the editor of MaddowBlog and a political contributor to MSNBC. He is also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”