Mike Pompeo Welcomes the Looming Social Security Debate
Two words are enough to scare most Republican politicians these days: Entitlement reform.
Or, rather, it’s the way Republican opponents interpret that phrase. After telling voters that the GOP want to (among other things) “end Social Security and Medicare” altogether, Democrats coasted to a historic showing in the midterm elections. Afterward, they didn’t let up. In his State of the Union address, President Biden repeated the charge, and other White House officials kept accusing Kevin McCarthy of trying to cut those programs as part of the debt ceiling negotiations – until the new House Speaker declared them “completely off the table.” Borrowing from Biden’s playbook, Donald Trump recently dubbed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “a wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy.”
Reconciling actuarial tables with government’s longtime pledge to the elderly isn’t the sexiest topic in politics, but arguments over austerity win and lose elections, and now the old Tea Party orthodoxies have come back to haunt plenty of the Republican politicians who once spouted them to win power. Just not Mike Pompeo.
No, the former secretary of State insists, he doesn’t want to push anyone over any cliff anywhere. Yes, the Kansas conservative maintains, whoever wins the nomination must take up the issue.
“It is absolutely the case that the next Republican president has to be more serious than previous Republican presidents have ever been about getting our fiscal house in order,” he said. His short-hand solution for the most pressing budgetary problem facing the nation: “Making sure that folks who receive benefits from the government work” and ensuring that those “who are able to survive without that support don’t receive it.”
“We have got to get that right,” Pompeo told RealClearPolitics Thursday as he considers acting on his own White House ambitions. It could be a liability for any Republican who wants the job. But he is direct. Pompeo said tackling the national debt, an effort that includes entitlement reform, is critical “to sustaining our economic place in the world over the long run.”
This side of Pompeo might sound unusual to the average Republican. Most voters, at least those outside Kansas, only got to know him as CIA director and later as secretary of state when he called for the vaporization of terrorists via drone, or while helping the previous president tear up the Iranian nuclear deal. If he decides to run, GOP primary voters will hear plenty about foreign policy, but they’ll also be reintroduced to the Pompeo who, upon entering Congress, declared, “I eat and breathe small government. And freedom.”
With that disposition, he would provide a more vintage brand of conservatism to the race. He promises to be blunt in all things either way.
Pompeo has already warned his own family not to rely on the federal government for their retirement. “When I talk to my son,” he said of the way things stand now, “I tell him, ‘Make sure you have a good job because Social Security is not going to be there for you.’” This gloomy assessment comes from taking seriously the warnings of the trustees of those funds, he said, “who keep telling us what year it’s going to end, and that year keeps drawing closer.”
According to current projections by the Congressional Research Service, without significant changes in the funding formulas or eligibility requirements, Social Security will become insolvent by 2035. Life expectancy is up in America, but birth rates are down, and with more people entering retirement than entering the workforce, there will be three scenarios to choose from if nothing changes. The federal government can slash benefits, raise taxes, or a combination of both.
“We have to make sure that these programs, Medicare and Social Security, which comprise a significant piece of federal expenditures, are on a sustainable trajectory,” Pompeo continued. “We owe it to the next generation to make sure we get that right … conservatives owe that to America.”
Details will necessarily have to follow if Pompeo decides to run. For now, as he travels to early primary states, he points to his time in Congress when a Republican Party animated by fiscal conservatism wasn’t so spooked by entitlement reform. On Social Security, the Kansas congressman supported increasing the retirement age and reducing cost-of-living adjustments while also allowing younger workers to partially opt out of the program for private retirement accounts. On Medicare, Pompeo voted for then-Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2015 budget, which would have overhauled a single-payer system in favor of a “premium-support system” to allow seniors to pick between traditional Medicare and private insurance plans.
Republicans were once unified around reform. At the State of the Union this year, they booed Biden’s accusation that they wanted to kill the programs. On Tuesday, Trump borrowed that cudgel from Democrats to beat back another former ally expected to enter the race, Gov. DeSantis, who promised the next day that Republicans were “not going to mess with Social Security.”
The race on the Republican side has been defined in the press and the polls as a contest between those two Florida populists. Pompeo could enter as a more traditionally conservative voice crying out in the current GOP wilderness. He doesn’t see anyone at the helm of his party at the moment.
“I don’t think there is a single leader, and frankly I don’t think there has ever been a single leader,” Pompeo said. “We always talk about presidents when they’re in power, but it’s a fractious party with lots of different ideas.” He welcomes that decentralization, calling it “fantastic.” Eventually though, ideological fraction will give way to some sort of political fusion. “We will choose someone to be the standard bearer,” Pompeo predicted, “in just a handful of months.”
Pompeo did express skepticism about the newfound appetite on the right to use the state to police what conservatives see as “woke corporations.” Asked about the DeSantis fight with Disney, he warned Republicans that “once government takes that power, once government grabs a hold of the private sector, it will fall into the hands of people who don’t think about the world the way that we do, and that is a dangerous path to go down.”
Some social conservatives love that move, but Pompeo pointed to two examples they hate to illustrate his warning to conservatives to “be very careful about government power.”
“We can see this when the Department of Justice behaves inappropriately, right?” he said. “Too much power in the hands of Department of Justice leads to political prosecutions.”
“We can see it in that when we suck in a big resource that begins to shape the economy in a way that ends up with things like Solyndra,” he added, a reference to the solar panel behemoth that took $535 million in federal loans during the Obama administration only to go belly-up two years later.
“I deeply believe that we should devolve government to the states, to the cities, to municipalities. We should have a much smaller federal bureaucracy. We should do our best to let the market drive good outcomes,” he concluded.
That limited-government sentiment from Pompeo reflects a return to what conservatives considered normal pre-Trump. Could he deliver a sort of Midwest antidote to the Florida populism that currently defines not just the developing presidential primary but also his party? One thing Pompeo wouldn’t bring back, however, is the nice guy energy of the polite Republicans from presidential cycles past, the kind of candidates once mocked for wearing “mom jeans.”
Pompeo has an earned reputation as a brawler, mostly from fights with liberals and the press that have not slowed since leaving the government.
The price Biden paid for letting a Chinese spy balloon traverse the continental United States, he recently said, was “global shame.” Jamal Khashoggi, the liberal columnist who was murdered by the Saudis, he wrote in his new memoir, didn’t deserve to die but was more of “an activist” than a journalist. The “most dangerous person” in America, he often says, is Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers.
The Pompeo strategy is to charge into raging culture wars only to recommend established conservative solutions. His answer to Weingarten and liberal teacher unions who are indoctrinating students is to “get the federal government out of the education system entirely” – by abolishing the Department of Education and replacing it with a system of “school choice all across the country.”
Pompeo often espouses an old-school individualism that runs contrary to the current tribal moment. For instance, the Biden administration’s $400 billion program to forgive as many as 40 million student loan borrowers isn’t just “unconstitutional.” He said it was “unfair,” even dangerous. “Why on earth” should his former employees at Thayer Aerospace, an aircraft-parts manufacturer he founded after leaving the military, especially the ones who didn’t get a four-year degree, “pay for the college education of someone else who decided to go to school then decided to welch on their loans?”
He predicts that the Supreme Court will rule against the Biden administration. Even then, Pompeo said, the loan amnesty sets another dangerous precedent where the government coddles citizens promising that the state “can save you from yourself.”
“That’s the Chinese Communist Party model,” he said, “not the American model.”
And while Biden has sought to place “equity” at the center of all his administration does, Pompeo argues again for rugged individualism. “Sign me up for diversity,” he said noting that as CIA director, “I wanted kids from all over the place to come put the dagger in their mouths and swim the river.”
Pompeo seems ready to grab a knife and jump into the primary pool. He hasn’t shown a willingness to run away from fights, but he hasn’t formally declared his candidacy either. The former diplomat told RCP last September that he would make a decision about 2024 soon – “by the end of the year or beginning of the next.”
“Still true,” he said reiterating that answer. “It’s still pretty early.”
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.