Candidates Divided in Approach to Payroll Tax Cut

Thursday, 22 Dec 2011 12:00 PM

By Dan Weil

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Republican presidential candidates have split in their strategy toward the payroll tax debate roiling Washington, The Hill and Politico report. The Senate passed a bill Saturday that would extend the payroll tax cut for two months, but the House rejected it Tuesday amid opposition from conservatives who favor a one-year extension.

The presidential candidates must figure out how to deal with the issue in a way that doesn’t abandon the party’s tax-cutting principles, doesn’t alienate their fellow Republicans in Congress, and doesn’t alienate GOP voters. Given the lack of unity among congressional Republicans on the issue, that’s not an easy proposition.

The heat generated by the conflict is well illustrated in a Wall Street Journal editorial published Wednesday. “The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play,” the editors wrote.

"Given how [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell] and House Speaker John Boehner have handled the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up re-electing the president before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest.”

As for candidate reaction, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put the onus for failure on Democrats. “They can’t figure out how to pass a one-year extension, so the Senate leaves town?” he said while campaigning in Iowa Wednesday. “It is an absurd dereliction of duty, and it’s game-playing.”

Gingrich called a two-month extension "insufficient." He said President Barack Obama “is so inept as a president, and the Congress is so dysfunctional as an institution, that we are lurching from failure to failure to failure.”

But Gingrich said Obama may be winning the public relations war. “It’s very hard for the legislative branch to outperform the president in communications,” Gingrich said. “He has all the advantages of being one person. He has all the advantages of the White House as a backdrop, and my experience is presidents routinely win.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also places the blame on Obama – for using the stick rather than the carrot to attract GOP support for the tax cut. "This president has been intent on attacking, and attack mode is not the way that a leader tries to get people to work together," he said on MSNBC.

Romney also indicated support for the House GOP’s opposition to a two-month extension. "Two months is not very long," he said. "You'd like to get as much done as possible. You'd like to see it go a full year."

Other candidates expressed a range of views on the issue. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who along with Texas Rep. Ron Paul missed Tuesday’s House vote on the bill, opposes extending the payroll tax cut.

“There isn’t one shred of evidence that it created jobs," she said Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press.”

"It defeated its purpose, plus it put senior citizens at risk by denying the $111 billion to the Social Security Trust Fund. All it’s doing is adding to the debt.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry appears to oppose the extension too. "What I’m looking for ... is a president that will get this country back working. And that temporary [cut] on that payroll tax is not even close to getting started," he told CNN last week.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum expressed opposition during  last week’s debate to the idea of funding a tax reduction through the Social Security system. "I'm all for tax cuts," he said. "But to take the Social Security Trust Fund that is so sacrosanct to the Democrats when it comes for election time, and then to use that as a tax and then try to beat up Republicans for not supporting the tax cut is absurd."

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman goes in the opposite direction. He believes House Republicans should accept the Senate compromise. "I think we are losing the high ground on tax cuts, and I think that's a bad place for the Republican Party to be," Huntsman told Fox News Wednesday.

Many Republican strategists say the candidates would do well to distance themselves as far as possible from this congressional conflict, indeed from almost any congressional conflict, lest they be soiled with Congress’ scum.

“Every Republican presidential candidate should stay out of the fight. There’s no upside to engaging in it,” Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for John McCain in 2008, told Politico. Like The Wall Street Journal editors, he says congressional Republicans are making it “more difficult” to defeat Obama with their objectionist stance on the payroll tax.

“Republicans at this moment in time, finishing 2011, are finishing it back on their heels, being beaten about by the president largely as the fault of self-inflicted strategic errors,” Schmidt said. “The level of incompetence involved — that allows the president to position himself as the tax-cutter in the equation — is almost beyond belief.”

Republican media consultant Todd Harris put his advice to the candidates in even stronger terms. “Stay the hell away from anything Congress does, good or bad,” he told Politico

“The candidates need to establish their own unique identities, but they’ll never do that if they get sucked into reacting to everything that happens in Congress. They should all get their own payroll tax cut plans and campaign on them. That gives you an explicitly positive issue to campaign on, while implicitly contrasting yourself with Washington and all its dysfunction.”

However, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who advised Romney in 2008 but is neutral this time around, notes that all the congressional machinations surrounding the payroll tax are resonating a lot more strongly inside the beltway than around the country as a whole.

“This does not reshape the 2012 landscape,” he told Politico. “Republicans will remain the tax cutters, and Democrats are still going to be the tax raisers, because they will always ... want to tax and spend.”



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