Former Vice President Mike Pence's bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination could reveal divisions within the GOP over Social Security and Medicare that some of his competitors have avoided discussing.
Pence, who launched his campaign on Wednesday, has distinguished himself among Republicans in the primary field by his willingness to talk about entitlement reform.
"The biggest drivers of runaway spending are our New Deal and Great Society programs upon which Americans depend every day — Social Security and Medicare," Pence said in his presidential announcement speech.
The programs' burdens threaten to "crush the future" of the next generation unless they are addressed, he said.
Pence's position puts him in direct opposition with his onetime boss, former President Donald Trump, who has firmly rejected any cuts to the two programs and has attacked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over his previous support for restructuring them.
President Joe Biden's "policy is insolvency," Pence said, but "you deserve to know, my fellow Republicans, that Donald Trump's position on entitlement reform is the same. Both of them refuse to even talk about the issue and take it to the American people."
The chasm between GOP frontrunners like Trump and classic conservatives like Pence reflects an overall shift away from a position that was once central to the Republican Party's platform.
Some experts say the change can be traced back to the rise of Trump in politics.
"The Republican Party had a lot of positions that were the positions of conservative Ph.D. economists — lower taxes, lower entitlements, more trade, etc.," Steven Teles, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, told CNBC Thursday. "Trump had no commitment to any of that framework at all."
Trump discovered that "he could just tell people what they wanted to hear, and nobody had actually tried that in the Republican Party," Teles said.
The number of U.S. seniors who depend on Social Security and Medicare benefits is in the tens of millions, and that figure is set to increase as the population ages. In recent decades, the number of registered voters over 50 has soared, with older voters tending to have higher turnout rates than younger ones and vote heavily Republican.
Most U.S. adults are opposed to proposals that would cut or reform Medicare and Social Security benefits, though both programs are slated to run out of cash in the coming years as the senior population relying on government benefits outpaces the workforce funding them through payroll taxes.
DeSantis has seldom mentioned the issue of entitlement cuts, except in response to attacks on the issue.
"I have more seniors [in Florida] than just about anyone as a percentage," DeSantis told Fox News in March. "You know, we're not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans."
During an interview with Newsmax last month, DeSantis was asked to respond to criticism from Trump allies over his record on entitlement reform.
"Those are Democrat attacks," DeSantis said. "I don't think anyone really buys that."
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