Popular government programs like Social Security and Medicare are called the third rail of American politics for good reason. Unilateral efforts to cut or devolve them generate significant public backlash—indeed, the most effective, early political attack on the Affordable Care Act was based on its provisions that cut Medicare spending. But our sense of these issues’ political explosiveness is shaped in a huge way by the fact that conservatives have never accepted the social compacts of the New Deal and Great Society, and have tried to undermine them aggressively for decades.
The canonical example of third rail politics is the GOP’s doomed 2005 push to privatize Social Security. After a reelection campaign of jingoism and fear mongering, George W. Bush claimed he’d won political capital and set about spending it on an unrelated plan that would’ve diverted significant payroll tax revenue into private investment accounts. Had he succeeded, many retirees would have become vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the market, and the guaranteed-benefit pension aspect of Social Security likely would have disappeared.
Liberals take great solace in the fact that Bush failed, and will reprise their strategy of unwavering opposition and refusing to negotiate when Republicans introduce plans next year to repeal the Affordable Care Act and phase out Medicare. Their resistance may well succeed.
But before they embark upon it, they should consider the possibility that, like everything in the Trump era, things probably won’t go precisely according to plan. Past GOP attacks on entitlement programs have been fairly frontal. Trump and his agenda-setters on Capitol Hill are going to do their best to keep this one off of the front pages.
In the end, Bush’s Social Security privatization never got a vote in Congress. In the face of intense public and Democratic Party objections, Republicans shelved it and then tried to pretend it never happened. But that was not for lack of effort on the part of privatizers, including Bush himself, who barnstormed the country trying to secure popular support for the plan.
In other words, it was huge news.
Donald Trump, by contrast, is currently barnstorming the country congratulating himself on his victory. He campaigned against privatizing Medicare, and promised to replace Obamacare with “something terrific” that covered everyone. “You cannot let people die on the street, OK?” he famously said. It is unlikely, in other words, that he will make a big Medicare privatization sales pitch that commands daily media attention. Instead he will do things like this:
On a daily basis, Trump has proven able to divert media attention away from the plutocratic government he is assembling and on to a variety of shiny objects. His meetings with Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio received far more coverage, for instance, than the fact that his designated Environmental Protection Agency director worked hand in glove with polluters as Oklahoma’s attorney general. He has not tweeted about Obamacare or turning Medicare over to private insurers, but he did appoint one of the most fiercely dedicated foes of both programs to run the Department of Health and Human Services.
In 2005, when Democrats wanted the GOP’s plan to privatize Social Security to drive news coverage, Bush played into their hands. In a way, he did so consistent with the best liberal traditions of public debate. Likewise, when President Barack Obama asked Congress to pass health care reform, Congress undertook a major public legislating process, while Obama quarterbacked. He gave a prime-time health care reform address to a joint session of Congress, and participated in a televised negotiation with congressional Republicans at the Blair House—a final gesture for cross-over support—before Democrats passed it on their own.
In all likelihood, Trump isn’t going to do any of this.
And in a very intentional way, he won’t really have to. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been priming Republicans in Congress to streamline Obamacare repeal and Medicare privatization for years. Unifying control of government so Congress can set the agenda, and the president can sit back and sign bills, has been the party’s long-game for years. The difference is that instead of keeping drama at bay, the GOP president will be creating routine distractions from the hard work of crafting unpopular legislation.
For the press, the temptation will be hard to resist. Covering major legislation is grueling, complicated work that doesn’t generate a return-to-clicks in the way a Trump rally or a Trump tweet does. Many dedicated, hardworking reporters will work insane hours covering the GOP’s decision-making and legislative maneuvers, but much of that hard work will end up below the fold, where much of the public won’t see it. This will insulate the party from blowback while the process is underway, which is precisely when blowback is most needed.
Democrats can do their best to focus the public mind. They can send their most popular figures (like senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) on to the stump or have them host regular press conferences. They can organize rallies and protests. Barack Obama himself might even participate.
But it is eerily possible to imagine Republicans pulling off the most regressive social reforms in modern history under a cloak of darkness. And the scariest thing of all for supporters of these programs is that nobody knows for sure how to reverse the dynamic, so that the third rail goes live again.