On Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) went to a big gathering of social conservatives in Washington, D.C., and, like a smart defense lawyer speaking to the jury, punched all the right buttons. I was unimpressed -- it’s easy to wow your crowd if you say what they want to hear -- and say it con brio. My “fantasy Ted Cruz speech” probably wouldn’t go over as well, and that’s because it would raise tough questions.
Imagine Senator Cruz saying to the crowd: “Put up your hand if you get Social Security payments. [Many hands go up.] That’s great, you worked hard for those benefits. But our country is in a tough debt situation -- and we’ve had to borrow from places like China [hisses in the crowd] to pay your benefits. [Nervous coughing in crowd.] So to reduce the debt, I think we need to look at a different way of calculating the annual increases in the benefits -- it would be very gradual, probably wouldn’t affect most of you here.” [“Like hell!” someone shouts, to a chorus of approving murmurs.]
Cruz straightens his tie and continues: “Another way to decrease the debt would be to raise the Social Security retirement age for people like me [puts hand on chest]. Right now, my full retirement age is 67 and I would support raising it for folks like me to 70. Again, for most of you here, it probably wouldn’t have any effect on your benefits." [More, louder shouts of ‘Like Hell!’ and ‘Don’t touch my money!’]
Undeterred, he says: “I know that Medicare is important to everyone in this room, but it also contributes a great deal to the debt. I think we need to look at raising the Medicare eligibility age -- very gradually, over 10 or 20 years -- to 67 or 68. And my friend in the House, Congressman Paul Ryan, has suggested that in order to further reduce the debt, we give you a voucher to buy health insurance instead of the government paying your doctor.”
By this time, the shouts and waves of anger from the crowd become so intense that a wide-eyed Ted Cruz makes for the exit.
So here’s my message to Senator Cruz: Condemning Obamacare (an emerging entitlement) is easy. Paring back existing entitlements is tougher sell.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of entitlements, I wonder if Senator Cruz realizes that the state receiving the most farm subsidies in 2012 was … Texas.
Is there any chance of pulling the plug and going totally free-market in agriculture, Senator Cruz? I suppose your answer is no, as earlier this year you spoke of the government providing a safety net for farmers.
If you didn’t realize it (and perhaps, in charity, neither did Senator Cruz), "safety net" is a code phrase for entitlement.
The common wisdom is the Senator has his sights on the 2016 Presidential election. Being an anti-Obamacare "one-trick-pony won’t get him there. Making the difficult choices to reduce the debt -- and successfully selling those choices to the American people; that’s the stuff great presidents are made of. Does Senator Cruz have the right stuff? We’ll have to wait and see.
Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional Republican staff member at the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.