Are Republicans preparing to cudgel Democrats with, of all things, Social Security?
That was the explicit impression left by Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, during a Wednesday interview on CNN. The Oregon congressman said President Obama's budget – which includes a reduction in the amount of Social Security benefits paid over time – is tantamount to a "shocking attack on seniors."
"When you're going after seniors the way he's already done on Obamacare, taken $700 billion out of Medicare to put into Obamacare and now coming back at seniors again, I think you're crossing that line very quickly here in terms of denying access to seniors for health care in districts like mine certainly and around the country," Walden said. "I think he's going to have a lot of pushback from some of the major senior organizations on this and Republicans as well."
Asked directly what was wrong with Obama’s proposed conversion to a so-called "chained CPI" for Social Security – the kind of far-reaching entitlement reform the GOP has clamored for -- Walden didn't back down.
"You're trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors, and I think it's not the right way to go," he said.
Walden's criticism, coming as it does from the head of the House Republican political arm, is significant in myriad ways. First, it amounts to the realization of many Democrats' worst fears, that the proposed cuts in Obama's budget would squander the party's traditional advantage as the protector of popular entitlement programs. Instead of accusing the GOP of wanting to decimate Social Security, Democrats might now have to explain to voters -- even if they don't personally support the proposal -- why their own party's leader is alone publicly advocating those cuts. The House Republican budget left Social Security untouched.
It's a possibility many progressive leaders have warned about.
"Walden's quote underscores what we knew," said Mike Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director. "Obama's chained CPI proposal is terrible policy that only makes political sense to Washington insiders who don't get outside the Beltway often enough. Obama beat Romney because working people care more about jobs and fairness than the deficit, and Democrats risk losing their political edge on the issue if they stick with this Beltway gambit."
Republicans used a similar gambit last year, as Walden alluded to, when Democrats charged the GOP with planning to gut Medicare. GOP members would counter that Obamacare had already cut roughly $700 billion in Medicare spending, effectively nullifying the attack. Republicans again won big among seniors in 2012 despite suffering big setbacks overall.
But playing turnabout with Social Security also leaves Republicans looking hypocritical. Obama's proposed switch to a Chained CPI was meant to be a show of good faith to Republicans that he was ready to compromise to achieve a "grand bargain" budget deal. It's an offer he reportedly already made to GOP leaders during prior budget negotiations.
Thus far in 2013, House Democrats' messaging has focused on depicting the House GOP as obstinate extremists who can't get anything done in Congress. Criticizing Obama for conceding a Social Security provision Republicans have sought only bolsters that Democratic argument.
"All this does for voters is expose the naked partisanship that's holding us back from getting any kind of solutions," said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The 2014 elections are going to be about Republican partisanship and obstruction versus Democrats offering solutions."
One thing is for sure: Walden didn't speak out of school. An aide at the NRCC says the chairman wanted to warn his colleagues of the political danger of embracing chained CPI.
"This is definitely what he believes is the right messaging on a political budget," the aide said. "It should be treated as a political budget."
By Wednesday evening, Walden's comments were garnering criticism among some fiscal conservatives. The free market Club for Growth issued a release calling on the congressman to "clarify" his remarks.
"Greg Walden doesn't seriously oppose even the most modest of reforms to social security, right?" asked Club President Chris Chocola. "With nearly $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities, the last thing Republicans should attack the Democrats for is for making the most minor reforms to our entitlement programs. If anything, President Obama nibbles around the edges of entitlement reform and doesn't do anything to put entitlements on a permanently sustainable path."
He added: "Greg Walden ought to think about clarifying his remarks on chained CPI, and think about clarifying soon. I'm sure his constituents would like to know his opinion."