Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said they back raising the retirement age for younger workers, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said they wouldn’t change it at all. The latter two are in alignment with the position of former President Donald Trump, who didn’t attend the debate.
None of the candidates onstage for the NBC News Republican presidential debate suggested they would cut entitlement benefits for seniors — a position that would alienate older voters who reliably turn up at the polls during election years.
But Christie and Haley argued it’s unrealistic to think Social Security can remain solvent without overhauling the system.
Christie said he would raise the retirement age for workers who are now in their 30s and 40s. People who’ve paid into the Social Security system can begin receiving benefits as early as 62 years old.
“I have a son who’s in the audience tonight who’s 30 years old. If he can’t adjust to a few-year increase in Social Security retirement age over the next 40 years, I got bigger problems with him than his Social Security payments,” Christie said. “The fact is we need to be realistic about this.”
Christie also backed the concept of a means test, in which wealthy people wouldn’t receive such federal benefits. “I don’t know if Warren Buffett is collecting Social Security,” he said. “But if he is, shame on you; you shouldn’t be taking the money.”
Haley suggested that the retirement age be lifted for workers now in their 20s. She also backs means testing, as well as hiking benefits based on inflation.
“Any candidate that tells you that they’re not going to take on entitlements is not being serious. Social Security will go bankrupt in 10 years; Medicare will go bankrupt in eight,” Haley said. “Right now, you have Ron and Trump joining Biden and Pelosi saying they’re not going to change or do any sort of entitlement reform.”
Other candidates on the stage in Miami said they wouldn’t touch the third rail of American politics.
“Let me just say to my mama and every other mama or grandfather receiving Social Security: As president of the United States, I will protect your Social Security,” Scott vowed, adding that he would tackle the nation’s debt by creating jobs and cutting government spending and taxes.
“If we’re going to actually tame this tiger,” he continued, “the way you do it is not by picking on seniors who have paid into a program that deserved their money coming back out to them. The way you deal with it is No. 1, you have to grow your economy.”
Pressed by NBC News’ Kristen Welker about whether he would raise the retirement age, Scott said: “The answer is no.”
DeSantis, whose state is home to millions of retirees, joked: “Look, as governor of Florida, I know a few people on Social Security.”
“My grandmother lived till 91, and Social Security was her sole source of income, and that’s true for a lot of seniors throughout this country,” he said. “So I’d say to seniors in America: Promise made, promise kept. I understand what you’re going through with the rising prices, and you need that Social Security check.”
He also noted that life expectancy in the U.S. has been declining in recent years (in part because of the opioid epidemic and the Covid-19 pandemic). “When life expectancy is declining, I don’t see how you could raise it the other direction,” he said.
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy’s answer was less straightforward. He didn't directly answer the question of whether he’d make any changes in the retirement age. But he seemed to suggest he would be able to salvage the program by shutting down some federal agencies, making severe cuts to the federal workforce and pulling back on foreign military and economic aid that he said has been sent "willy nilly."
“We’re working within the last window I believe we will have to actually fix this problem while still leaving Social Security and Medicare benefits for current seniors intact,” Ramaswamy said.