Deep in senior-rich Florida, Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty called Tuesday for fundamental changes in Social Security and other entitlement programs he said are not sustainable in their current form.
Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor positioning himself as the GOP race's blunt talker, said in a Facebook town hall meeting and a session with reporters that if elected he would gradually raise the Social Security retirement age and phase out cost-of-living increases for wealthier recipients. Current retirees and those close to retirement would be unaffected, he said.
"We're here to look them in the eye, and look young people in the eye, and tell them what needs to be done," he said. "These are reasonable things that can be done, but we need to tell the truth about it."
Pawlenty officially entered the race Monday and assured supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, that he would tell hard truths that President Barack Obama would not. One was his opposition to ethanol subsidies, not a popular stand in corn-dependent Iowa. In Florida, his proposals for overhauling entitlement programs aimed at seniors were similarly meant in part to show him as fearless in taking on politically untouchable issues.
On Medicare, Pawlenty said he would roll out a detailed plan in the coming weeks that had both similarities and differences with the voucher plan advocated by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Budget Committee. Democrats, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, view the Ryan plan as unpopular and are seeking to link Pawlenty and other GOP candidates to it.
Wasserman Shultz, who is also chair of the Democratic National Committee, asked on Twitter: "If president, would he sign or veto Ryan plan to end Medicare?"
Pawlenty did not take a direct stand on that question, but he did say Medicare must undergo changes to become financially stable. For example, he said seniors could be rewarded if they seek care from professionals who can provide quality care at lower costs, and pay more if they go to providers who are more costly.
"That approach works. Why? Because people have some skin in the game," he said.
No more 'sacred cows'
Pawlenty said he would end the shared federal-state management of Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled, and replace it with a federal grant system that would leave the states fully in charge of who gets coverage and how much.
"If you put the states in the driver's seat, they'll come up with some amazing results," he said.
Pawlenty's comments on the entitlement programs in Florida follow his speech Monday in Iowa corn country, where he called for a gradual end to the federal subsidy for ethanol produced from corn. Many politicians shy away from taking on popular programs in states where they matter most, but Pawlenty insisted he is different.
"What I know is this: There just can't be any more sacred cows," he said.
Pawlenty's events were held at the swank Biltmore Hotel, which also houses offices including that of former Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush and Pawlenty did not meet Tuesday, but Bush applauded Pawlenty's ethanol speech on Twitter.
"I admire truth telling and T-Paw sure did it to open his campaign," Bush tweeted, adding a link to a favorable Wall Street Journal piece on the subject.