June 19, 2023 - 6:10pm

Fresh from the debt ceiling standoff, the Republican party faces a new internal battle, this time on entitlements. The latest proposal is to raise the eligibility age for Social Security retirement benefits from 67 to 69 among other things. But what is striking is how such plans appear to resemble the GOP of old, illustrating that grip that this wing of the party still has in elite Republican circles.

Indeed, the current plan proposed by the Republican Study Committee (RSC) bears a striking similarity to the ones floated by Paul Ryan, a fiscal hawk who served as speaker of the House of Representatives from 2015-2019. In addition, the RSC plan looks to entrench Ryan-era and other tax cuts (totalling $5.1 trillion over ten years) while relying on steep spending cuts ($16.3 trillion over ten years) to balance the budget.

These ideas were presented as a necessary fix to the perennial problem of Social Security insolvency, but what’s been conspicuous so far is the silence of the GOP’s 2024 presidential candidates with respect to this proposal: in particular, the frontrunner for the nomination, Donald Trump, who has usually been quite vocal on the issue.

Trump has alternated between being a passive supporter of his party’s pro-austerity, small-government fixations, such as when he signed the largely Paul Ryan-designed 2017 tax cut, and being a vocal dissenter against those same orthodoxies, like when he came out against “people that want to destroy our great Social Security system” and “that want to raise the minimum age of Social Security to 70, 75…”. Here he sounded more like a Democrat than a traditional Republican.

It’s also noteworthy that Trump’s ideological foil, Ryan, recently emerged from retirement to attack the former president, whose administration he effectively used as a vehicle when he was Speaker to pass his beloved tax cuts. After all, it was Trump who pledged earlier this year that: “we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush.”

In that same speech delivered in March, Trump came out in favour of spectacular policies like building “Freedom Cities” and giving out “baby bonuses,” articulating an expansive populist vision of government that would entail massive expenditures and run contrary to the fiscal inclinations of groups like the RSC and the Freedom Caucus.

Trump has also used entitlements to distinguish himself from main rival Ron DeSantis, whom he once called a “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy” for supporting similar measures in the past: it’s a position that Republicans and Democrats alike see as politically very potent on the campaign trail. The former president is clearly aware that slashing entitlements are an unpopular issue, particularly with his older voting base. 

Yet on this issue, he largely stands alone among Republican leaders. Despite the fact that it is Trump who is leading the pack of presidential aspirants while Ryan is at best forgotten and at most reviled by the Republican base (and notwithstanding a small handful of authentically populist Senators), it’s clear judging from the 175 RSC House members who put their name to the budget proposal, that in terms of economic policy, institutional culture, and day-to-day governance, the Republicans are still overwhelmingly the party of Ryan rather than the party of Trump.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.