Former Gov. Mike Huckabee made some headlines this past week when it came to light that he had made a joke about transgender people during a February speech. He said that, given the chance in high school, he “would have found my feminine side” so he could take showers with the girls in P.E. This was newsworthy, apparently, because of the attention surrounding Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner.
This column is not about that joke. Let’s instead focus on something Huckabee has been saying when he’s completely serious.
Huckabee has released a pledge in which he makes 17 promises, including to “protect Social Security and Medicare and never rob seniors of the benefits they were promised and forced to pay for.” He has criticized other Republicans for proposing to change those two programs, which together compose 38 percent of all federal spending and are growing.
Huckabee is right that benefits should not be cut for current beneficiaries or for those who are nearing retirement age. They’ve paid into the system their entire lives and planned their retirements based on the rules, with no real say in what those rules were. People a little older than me (I’m 46) and younger, on the other hand, are probably going to have to accept some changes.
But in an interview with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto after speaking in Florida June 2, Huckabee said that the rules shouldn’t be changed for anyone paying into the system, including for those just starting out as teenagers who won’t collect for another 50-something years. He openly told Cavuto that he is differentiating himself from other Republicans who have tiptoed toward this politically hazardous issue.
With the aging of the baby boomers, longer life spans, and increasing health care costs, Social Security and Medicare need some fixes. For example, Social Security’s non-existent “trust fund” is due to become insolvent in 2033. That’s 18 years from now, not 50. If the actuarial tables are correct, whoever is in office that year will be forced to either cut benefits by 23 percent, raise taxes, make deep cuts elsewhere, or borrow from the future. He or she will have to make difficult decisions then because current political leaders won’t make them now.
One honest way to continue paying current Medicare and Social Security benefits is to raise taxes and cut other government programs, including the military. If that’s what America wants to do, I’ll write my check now so my kids don’t have to.
The problem is that Huckabee doesn’t propose anything like that. Among his 17 promises are to “support a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution,” but then he pledges to “secure our borders,” “restore our military infrastructure,” and “end the national disgrace of failing to properly care for our veterans” – all worthy goals individually, but none of them free.
There are not a lot of spending cuts in those 17 promises. He does pledge to deny government benefits for illegal immigrants and to repeal Obamacare. That’s not nearly enough to balance the budget, and besides, the pre-Obamacare health care system was a growing driver of the national debt, too. He did say in his speech that the country should redirect its health care spending toward curing diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. If those efforts were successful, Medicare would be much more sustainable.
Meanwhile, he promises to “oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes” and to replace the current income tax with a national sales tax. He says the new tax system would grow the economy, generate revenue, and be a better way to pay for Social Security and Medicare than cutting spending or raising taxes.
A national sales tax might or might not be a good idea, but it certainly would be a huge experiment. If it raised less revenue than expected, then would Huckabee cut spending?
For decades, Republicans and Democrats have engaged in the same politics: Grow government first, and then worry about paying for it later, or never. At least Huckabee is being honest about the fact that he won’t cut Social Security and Medicare or raise taxes.
But by doing so, he’s contributing to the national misperception that this impossible math is all going to work. Americans haven’t accepted the hard truth that if they want these government programs, they’ll have to pay for them. Leaders must tell them that truth.
Let’s hope Huckabee will use his considerable skills to do so. The national debt is no joke.