In this town, it should go without saying that the best policy isn’t always the best politics. But, sometimes we need a reminder of just why it is so very hard to get what many see as “common sense” solutions out of Congress. Getting in the way of “Grand Bargains” and gangs of bipartisan working groups is this cold hard reality: short term political gain is rewarded more than long-term strategic planning.
Case in point: NRCC Chairman Greg Walden’s (OR) criticism of a change to the cost of living adjustment to Social Security (a.k.a. Chained CPI) that was included in President Obama's 2014 budget. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Walden argued that the president’s budget “lays out a shocking attack on seniors.” His statement was met with incredulousness by the Washington chattering class. After all, they cried, President Obama was offering something – entitlement reform –that the GOP leadership actually wanted. House Speaker John Boehner had even gone as far as giving Obama credit for including modest entitlement reform in a budget in which he otherwise found much fault.
Moreover, Walden's statement undermined the conventional wisdom that it was the left that Obama was going to have to try and appease, not the right.
Some have speculated that Walden went rogue. Or that he was simply inept. But, talking to folks who are privy to his thinking, it’s clear that this was no rookie mistake for the first-time campaign committee chairman. Quite the opposite. This was a deliberate warning flare to his party. While the policy calculus for entitlement reform is obvious (we simply don’t have enough money to pay for all of our entitlement obligations), so are the politics (cutting benefits has electoral consequences).
As head of the arm dedicated to electing and re-electing Republicans, Walden’s job isn’t to pass a grand bargain. It is to keep Republicans in the majority. And, his party, already struggling to try and convince Americans that they aren’t simply the party of rich, white people, can’t afford to be tagged as the party willing to cut Social Security benefits of the working and middle class. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that just 22 percent of Americans agreed with the Republican Party’s “approach to looking out for the middle class” compared to 33 percent for Democrats.
A Republican strategist said polling they’ve conducted shows widespread disapproval for making even minor changes to the Social Security program for current seniors. This same strategist argued that the fear among many GOPers, especially those in swing districts, is that the president is setting a trap for them on this issue. He’ll entice the GOP to embrace his entitlement reform, says this Republican, only to sweep it off the table once the Democratic base howls loud enough. Republicans, they say, will be left holding the bag and taking the blame for endorsing cuts to a popular social program.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that Walden is over-reacting. After all, back in 2012 Democrats were convinced that the GOP embrace of Paul Ryan’s controversial budget would hurt them at the polls. But, millions of dollars of attack ads later, Congressional Republicans carried seniors (those over 65 years old) by 11 points. In fact, Democrats haven’t carried the 65 and older crowd since 2000.
But, says a Walden advocate, Republicans were successful in beating back the Ryan attacks only because they went on the offense with Obamacare and attacks on the “cuts” to Medicare in that plan. There is also the memory of 2005 still burning in the minds of many GOPers. Back then, it was the NRCC and its chairman Rep. Tom Reynolds, who had to push back hard on the Bush White House proposal to make major Social Security reforms, arguing that it would destroy their ability to hold onto the majority. Two years later, of course, the Republicans lost their majority anyway. But, it was Iraq and Jack Abramoff who were to blame – not entitlement reform.
On immigration reform, the President may be working hard at getting a bi-partisan deal, but there are plenty of Democrats who are more concerned with ensuring the GOP doesn’t get any credit than they are with seeing a deal come to fruition. The pro-Democratic opposition research group American Bridge, recently released a 22- page document highlighting the “extreme positions” on immigration reform of many of the Republicans involved in the Gang of Eight negotiations. Not surprisingly, Sen. Marco Rubio is prominently featured, with a page dedicated to his “Extreme Policies, Hostile Rhetoric, And Ties To Anti-Immigrant Funding.” This isn’t to say that this group wants immigration reform to fail. But their job is to undermine/define the image of one of the GOP’s most likely 2016 candidates before he has a chance to do it for himself. More than anything else, Democrats fear the ability of Rubio to get a toehold among Latino voters. If it means that an immigration deal also fails – so be it.
At the end of the day, there is a huge trust deficit in this town. A legislative deal that gets bi-partisan sign-off means nothing to the political arms of the two parties and the SuperPACs and independent groups that have sprung up to supplement them. To be sure, this is nothing new. But, it is worth reminding partisans on both sides that they are complicit in undermining this trust. Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 thanks to the relentless effort of the DCCC to slap the “Bush extremist” label on every Republican – regardless of how moderate a record he or she had compiled. The NRCC did the same thing to moderate Democrats in 2010. When you wonder why both sides seem so antsy about signing up for a bi-partisan deal, remember this: A deal cut today that wins praise from the editorial pages is just as likely to end up in an attack ad.