WASHINGTON — From as far back as Barry Goldwater in 1964, political candidates have risked backlash in Florida for suggesting changes to Social Security. So it was remarkable to see Marco Rubio in a national TV debate with Gov. Charlie Crist call for raising the retirement age.
Blogs and Facebook groups instantly lit up. The consensus was Rubio committed a serious gaffe. Older Americans are among the most reliable voters, and in Florida, 2.4 million of them receive Social Security.
But as he braces for Crist to exploit the issue in their intense Republican U.S. Senate primary, Rubio says it shows that he is willing to confront the uncomfortable.
"This is one of those issues that we have to deal with," he said in an interview.
Many Social Security experts agree that raising the retirement age is one of the solutions that must be considered if the 75-year-old entitlement program is to avoid insolvency.
"Any expert from any political spectrum will tell you that Rubio was right," said Andrew Biggs, former No. 2 at the Social Security Administration and now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
Rubio said during the March 28 Fox News Sunday debate that he favored raising the age only for people younger than 55, meaning current beneficiaries would not be affected.
He agrees with a sweeping entitlement reform plan advanced by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would raise the age for full benefits to 70 by 2098, with the gradual climb beginning in 2018. The plan, which has gained notice beyond Washington, also includes changing an indexing formula under which benefits are adjusted. In the debate, Rubio said he's open to rejiggering the cost of living adjustment.
Asked what he would do, Crist told debate moderator Chris Wallace that raising the age "really flies in the face of an awful lot of my fellow Floridians" and said he would root out waste and fraud instead.
"Crist's answer was just a parody of the nonserious politician," Biggs said. Other experts agree waste and fraud, while it exists, is not part of the overall problem facing Social Security.
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The current full retirement age is either 65 or 66 depending on when a person was born, and will be increased to 67 by 2027. That increase came amid reforms, including higher payroll taxes, pushed by President Ronald Reagan and Congress in 1983 after the last Social security crisis.
A weak economy is at work again, pushing more people to seek benefits sooner than expected. Add that to the huge number of baby boomers hitting retirement age and the increased life expectancy, and the problem is evident.
This year, Social Security will pay out more benefits than it receives in payroll taxes. The system has a $2.5 trillion balance that is not expected to go flat until 2037. By that time there will be about 2.1 workers for each beneficiary, down from the current 3.2 workers.
Like Ryan, Rubio does not go as far as some policymakers would, including increasing payroll taxes or lifting the income ceiling for taxable income, now $106,800.
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Rubio may have the experts on his side but there are political risks in Florida, just as there were when he disagreed with Crist and said illegal immigrants should not be counted in the 2010 census. That stance could cost the state millions in federal aid to cover services.
"As soon as you say anything about Social Security, a lot of voters don't want to know the details," said David Denslow of the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, who agrees Rubio's approach is sensible.
Darryl Paulson, a retired political scientist from the University of South Florida, recounted when Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1964, proposed making Social Security voluntary. There was fierce backlash across the country — including Florida, fast becoming a retiree haven. Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, who ran a commercial showing a Social Security card being torn in half, won the state by a slim margin and became president.
"It's a potentially powerful issue for Crist, but it's going to be moderated by the fact that it would have more impact in the general election," Paulson said, explaining that GOP primary voters are likely more willing to rework Social Security.
So far, Crist has limited reaction to a post-debate e-mail (subject: Rubio's shocking admissions) to reporters. Crist was unavailable for comment Tuesday, his campaign said, issuing a statement instead:
"Governor Crist believes that Speaker Rubio's support of raising the retirement age and reducing Social Security cost of living adjustments is cruel, unusual and unfair to seniors living on a fixed income," it read.
"While entitlement reform needs to be addressed, the speaker's position on this issue demonstrates, yet again, that he does not have Floridians' best interests in mind. This issue will surely be one of many Florida voters will hear more about throughout the rest of this campaign."
Rubio said he is ready. "I would expect him to demagogue this issue. The problem is, what's his idea?"
For as confident as he sounds, Rubio is expected to bring the subject up — and stress it is not directed at anyone currently 55 or older — during a visit to the Villages retirement community in Central Florida on Tuesday.
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at learyspt.