Wilfredo Lee/AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach on February 15, 2023.
CNN  — 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday distanced himself from his past support for privatizing Social Security and raising the retirement age as potential future political foes seize on his previous ideas for the popular retirement program.

“We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans,” DeSantis told Fox News. “I think that that’s pretty clear.”

As a congressman, DeSantis voted for nonbinding budget resolutions that would have made age 70 the new threshold for seniors to collect their federal benefits. A recent CNN KFile review review of DeSantis’ comments during his 2012 congressional campaign found support for privatizing Social Security as well.

The attempt by DeSantis to publicly walk back a position foundational to the fiscal conservatism that defined his early political career comes as former President Donald Trump has made support for Medicare and Social Security an early fault line in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. Trump has singled out DeSantis, who is traveling the country to promote his new book and raise his profile ahead of a highly anticipated campaign for president.

Unloading on his social media platform, Trump this week called DeSantis “the man who wants to cut Social Security and Medicare” and a “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy, just like his hero, failed politician Paul Ryan.” The criticism revived an attack line Democrats used over a decade ago to undercut Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who proposed partial privatization of Medicare and Social Security in his budget blueprints and was named Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. In an ad that aired in multiple swing states, an actor seemingly portraying Ryan wheeled an elderly woman to the edge of a cliff and pushed her over.

DeSantis has largely avoided engaging with Trump and didn’t previously respond to questions about his past positions. His new book, “The Courage to Be Free,” glosses over his early political career and his nearly three terms in Congress, instead focusing largely on the cultural fights that have defined his first term as governor and fueled his ascent in the GOP.

But Thursday, in his latest of several appearances promoting his book, DeSantis was asked by Fox News host Dana Perino about a proposal to raise the retirement age for federal benefits to 70. He pivoted to criticizing President Joe Biden’s past votes on Social Security before appearing to dismiss concerns about the long-term financial outlook of federal entitlement programs.

“There’s a lot of the budget people used to say, they would blame Social Security or Medicare for budget woes. But the reality is they have printed trillions and trillions of dollars, and that has really fueled the inflation,” the governor said.

The statement appears at odds with what DeSantis said in 2012, when he first ran for Congress as a tea party conservative and a disciple of Ryan’s and his hawkish budgets. DeSantis said at the time that it was “unsustainable” to allow seniors to retire before their late 60s, CNN KFile found. He also voiced support for Ryan’s plans for privatizing Social Security.

“What I think we need to do for people in my generation, particularly, is start to restructure the program in a way that’s going to be financially sustainable, both Social Security and Medicare,” he said at the time.

DeSantis’ about-face drew immediate rebuke Thursday from the Democratic National Committee, which accused the Republican governor in a press release of attempting to “completely rewrite his long, established record of supporting cuts to Social Security and Medicare.” On social media, the party posted side-by-side video featuring DeSantis’ past comments and his remarks Thursday.

As Trump pressures Republicans to support Medicare and Social Security, other potential 2024 contenders have voiced support for making changes to the programs. Former Vice President Mike Pence told CNBC last month that Social Security and Medicare needs to be “on the table” in dealing with US national debt. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley declared early in her campaign for president that “we do have to address entitlements” for future beneficiaries.

DeSantis’ pivot marks the second time he has appeared to change his position to more closely align with Trump’s. The governor recently voiced opposition to American intervention in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, after repeatedly voicing support in the past for sending “defensive and offensive” weapons to Ukraine to deter Russian aggression.

While Trump has tried to pull his potential primary opponents into uncomfortable policy fights in recent weeks, DeSantis has sought to steer the narrative around his likely candidacy to his legislative wins as governor. He launched his new book a day after signing a bill that effectively gives him control of Disney’s special taxing district in Florida, a saga that is recounted in detail in his political memoir.

In his appearance on Fox News, DeSantis teased a potential announcement after the upcoming legislative session, which starts next week, when the governor is expected to push through more of his ideological agenda.

“When we get on the other side of that, assuming we’ve been successful,” DeSantis said, “we’ll take a look at what that would mean for national.”

This story has been updated with additional information.