And their support reveals a larger point. Even if voters are more open than in the past to altering entitlement programs, major structural changes to something as important as Social Security still carry significant political risk. Heading into next year's midterm elections, Walden and his colleagues must be wary of embracing some of the sharper points of their political agenda — even if it draws the ire of fellow conservatives.
If the Oregonian is worried about the blowback, he hasn't shown it. Although he declined an interview for this story, aides and associates depict him as sanguine about the controversy (even as he has kept a low profile since).
Tom Davis, a former Republican House member from Virginia and a onetime NRCC chairman, had dinner with Walden the night the controversy erupted. Davis said Walden betrayed no sign he was upset at what had happened earlier in the day, and the two barely discussed Social Security politics to begin with. When they did, Davis said he told his former colleague he was just "being a good campaign chairman."
That's the rub. Republicans supportive of Walden say they understand that Republicans believe chained CPI is good policy — and that Walden believes that as well. But the chances of a grand budget bargain in which such a proposal is included remain slim. So why should House Republicans stick their neck out on something that is never going to make it into law? Walden's job, in fact, demands that he warn about the danger of doing so.
GOP members particularly fear that House Democrats, already unhappy with the entitlement-program reduction, will back off their own support, leaving Republicans exposed. "Do you want to be about politics, or do you want to be about policy?" Davis said. "That's the question. If you're serious about solving the budget deficit, you have to throw this into the mix. If you want to play politics, then it's different."
The danger for Republicans is obvious. As their support ebbs among groups such as young people, the middle class, minorities, and women, one demographic remains solidly in their corner: seniors. Fifty-six percent of them backed Mitt Romney last year, but they stand to lose the most if Social Security benefits are reduced. "Seniors are the only definite group voting Republican right now," Davis said. "So I don't know why you would want to lead with [Social Security], outside of pleasing the Club for Growth. Do you want to be out on the front pages with this?"
Republicans strategists have no doubts that as the midterms draw near, House Democrats will use Social Security as a cudgel against their GOP counterparts. To these GOP campaign experts, Walden was simply staking out ground early in that looming fight, showing how Republicans can play offense on an issue that traditionally puts them in a defensive crouch. That reversal, in fact, is exactly why many progressive Democrats were and continue to be so angry with Obama's public acceptance of chained CPI, believing that the move is both a substantive and a political disaster.