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Presidential candidates haven't wanted to touch them, and still don't now. But demographic reality is dragging Social Security and Medicare into the 2016 debate.
The first members of the massive baby boom generation began retiring four years ago. Tens of millions are right behind them, leaving politicians in Washington the unenviable task of finding money to shore up the two popular entitlement giants.
There are only two options: Increase the amount of money coming in (through higher tax revenues) or decrease the amount going out (through reduced benefits). Neither goes well with seeking votes — as President George W. Bush found out in 2005 when a skittish Republican-controlled Congress refused to act on his plan to partially privatize Social Security.
But given the GOP's emphasis on debt and deficits during the Obama era, Republican candidates have concluded it's an issue they can't avoid. The field has chosen three distinct approaches to handling it.
One — taken by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and real estate magnate Donald Trump — is to insist that no benefit cuts are necessary. They point toward tax reform plans that would generate new revenue. In Huckabee's case, it's the "Fair Tax" plan to levy 23 percent on purchases nationwide, replacing the payroll taxes that finance Social Security and Medicare. In Trump's it's a steep cut in the existing tax system that he insists will jump-start the economy and create a burst of new revenue.
A second approach is overhaul Social Security and Medicare to produce significant savings. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush support raising the eligibility age for workers not currently near retirement. Rubio would reduce the rate of growth in benefits for higher-income Social Security recipients; Christie would phase out benefits for retirees with incomes above $200,000. For Medicare, Bush and Rubio back the shift toward a capped "premium support" model such as that proposed by House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan.
The third approach is the boldest — and most vulnerable to attack by Democrats in a general election. It would revive the partial privatization plan that President Bush was unable to pass. Jeb Bush and Rubio say the time for that approach has passed. But Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, appealing to more conservative primary voters, say the time remains ripe, and they support partial privatization.