OPED: Wait until they come for Medicare, Social Security

Jim Jenkins
Tribune News Service

Julius Caesar saw it coming. He never really trusted Cassius, the senator. He reckoned once that Cassius had a "lean and hungry look" — according, of course, to William Shakespeare. And sure enough, Cassius proved Caesar's suspicions right when he led the conspiracy to kill the dictator.

Now, if the family and I had U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan over for Christmas dinner, we'd trust him to hold the big blade and carve the turkey. So don't get me wrong, but in the 47-year-old Ryan, we who are enrolled in Medicare are starting to worry about his own lean and hungry look.

With the tax cut for millionaires and big business passed by Republicans, economists of differing political persuasions seem to be agreeing that a day of reckoning will come somewhere down the road, when those permanent tax cuts for the big corporations are making them richer than ever and the ones for the middle class — relatively paltry — will expire. As the huge cuts begin to take a toll on the budget, Ryan and his Republican mates, or their successors, will start looking at what falls under the general category of "entitlement reform."

They'll wring their hands and furrow their brows and say, "Oh golly, folks, we don't want to cut Medicare and Social Security, but given the deficit and all, we really have no choice. And we know you people care more about maintaining those low taxes for wealthy people (cutting inheritance taxes and income taxes) and business (slicing the corporate rate). So you people on Medicare will just have to cut a few corners on food and medicine. But hey — you can ride by the billionaires' homes at Christmas and admire all the lights, and as you'll discover, a horse and wagon really are the best way to see them."

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That's exactly what would happen. Because though they don't like to be reminded of it, some prominent Republicans argued against Medicare when it was being debated in the 1960s. And their predecessors stood against Social Security in the 1930s.

Interestingly, one person who vowed long ago never to touch Medicare and Social Security is Donald J. Trump. Now friends, when Donald Trump is more in touch with the sentiments of average Americans than Republican leaders in Congress, well, what time are the aliens landing?

Even if the lean and hungry Mr. Ryan, or some successor like him, were to push to go after Medicare and Social Security, the powerful lobby of the AARP and other organizations populated by and supported by the elderly would have a little something to say at the ballot box. As America's population ages, those 65 and over have become a much more powerful lobbying group.

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Ryan and his congressional mates are the beneficiaries of ridiculously generous retirement and health benefits, and veteran members of Congress often make the mistake of spending too much time talking to ideologues, lobbyists and each other and not enough talking to the people they represent. If Ryan and his breathless tax-cutting Republicans in Congress had bothered to discuss their economic plan with the folks back home, they'd have found that people don't care much about tax cuts for business and the rich, because they know the promises that the benefits will dribble down to ordinary folks are empty, little more than a political ploy and an insult to their intelligence.

But they'll come for us, those of us with Medicare and the folks getting Social Security — sure they will. And after those big votes on reforming and cutting entitlements, how's about we all go for a ride?

Driver, to the polls, if you please.

— Jim Jenkins is the deputy editorial page editor at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina.