Rand Paul Digs Himself In Deeper on Social Security and Disability

When I talk about the problems Mike Huckabee may cause for his fellow Republicans by critically talking about their addiction to “entitlement reform,” it’s stuff like this I’m thinking of (per Dave Weigel):

Every election cycle, candidates who want to burnish their fiscal hawk credentials warn that entitlements are going to run out of money. This election cycle is different: The Social Security disability trust fund really is in danger of running low before it’s over. According to Social Security’s actuary, if nothing is done by late 2016, the fund that paid $141 billion to disability beneficiaries will be able to meet just 81 percent of its obligations.

Most Republicans want to use this crisis to reform Social Security, arguing that a disability system that’s seen enrollment nearly treble over 30 years is simply unsustainable. Some have talked about this more elegantly than others. In a January visit to New Hampshire, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul half-joked that “over half the people on disability are anxious or their back hurts.”

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is running a populist, pro-entitlement campaign- far out of step with most Republicans-said last week that the disability program needed to be treated sensitively. “We should approach it that people are innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around,” he told Bloomberg. “You should make the government prove that a person isn’t in need, rather than the person having to absolutely prove that they are.”

Paul’s not hearing the alarms going off.

On Monday, after another event in New Hampshire, Paul expanded on his disability position by arguing that advocates for the disabled needed to collaborate on cost-cutting ideas.

“I think the first thing to acknowledge is that there’s not money for all of these Social Security disability programs,” Paul told Bloomberg in an interview. “It runs out of money this year. [The program does not hit a shortfall until late 2016, according to the actuary.]

“The overall Social Security system pays out more than it takes in. So I think it’s really without question that all of these programs need to be reviewed to make them financially sound. There are people who are truly disabled, so the program should first of all prioritize those who are truly disabled.”

Paul’s solution: Persuade advocates to stop just clamoring for more funding and start thinking about efficiency.

Yeah, that’s going to happen for sure.

Now it’s possible Paul is, and Huck isn’t, understanding the political dynamics of this particular program. It’s part of the Social Security system for sure, but it’s not a retirement program, and while medical disability is normally viewed as ipso facto “neediness,” the regular drumbeat from conservatives of late seeks to brand it as now harboring a lot of “welfare cheats” who, as Paul suggested in his earlier snark, have talked doctors into judging them as disabled for minor and/or imaginary ailments.

But even if some Republicans no longer think of disability as a virtuous entitlement (and less face it, a significant minority of them would like to see Social Security privatized, cut or abolished as well), it’s a perilous argument because most of us know people who are truly disabled, and asking them or their advocates to basically find ways to screw other people to pay for their own care just isn’t going to go over well. And if Rand Paul continues to dig himself in deeper on this subject, Mike Huckabee will be standing by with a fresh shovel.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.