At last night's CNBC GOP debate in Boulder, Colorado, it was hard to glean from the chaotic proceedings the promised substance on the economy. But what the exchanges concerning Social Security and Medicare did reveal was a field of presidential contenders that saw the issue of entitlements as a big opening to attack the status quo.
That part of the on-stage skirmishes also hinted that in the general election, Democrats could see Republicans raise -- in their own way -- what they see as a widening gap between the nation's wealthiest families and everybody else, which they blame on President Obama. "The top 1 percent earn a higher share of our national income then anytime since 1928," Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas noted.
According to Carly Fiorina, since President Obama came into office more than 3 million women fell into poverty "with the number of women in extreme poverty at an all-time high."
On Social Security New Jersey Gov. Chis Christie said the only way to keep the program sustainable in the long term was to raise the retirement age for younger workers and end the practice of extending it to all retirees no matter how high their income. "The government has lied to you and stolen from you," Christie said. "Let's tell people the truth."
"Today Congress decided to take $150 billion from Social Security," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee referring to the deal between congressional Republicans and the Obama administration to raise the federal debt ceiling and fund the government for the next two years. "This is not a matter of math. It is a matter of morality."
"If you're not willing to raise the age of retirement, you're not serious about dealing with the issue," said Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul insisted that means-testing for entitlements like Medicare was essential. "Right now the average person pays in $100,000" over their work life "but costs $350,000," said Paul, who is also an ophthalmologist.
Dr. Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon questioned the cost-effectiveness of Medicare as currently configured. "The annual Medicare budget is $600 billion, and there are 48 million people involved," said Carson. "that too comes to $12,500 per each person. There are a lot of private sector things you can do with $12,500 which will get you a lot more than from this program."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio warned his rivals that come the general election, Democrats would use the GOP discussion on entitlements to "demagogue" the issue, casting the Republicans as hostile to seniors. "My mother is on Medicare and Social Security," Rubio said.
Throughout the evening some of the candidates made a linkage between the need to shrink big government as a check against the concentration of wealth and increasing market domination by big businesses. "The truth of the matter is big government benefits the wealthy. It benefits the lobbysists. It benefits the giant corporations," said Cruz. "The people that are getting hammered are the small businesses, the single moms (are) the people Washington leaves behind."
While all the candidates tried to position themselves on the side of the "little guy," Donald Trump used last night's forum to challenge his rivals to end the use of Political Action Committees that are funded by the nation's most powerful corporate interests. "Super PACS are a disaster. They're a scam, and they cause dishonesty," Trump warned. "They are causing a lot of bad decisions to be made by some very good people."