For about a day earlier this month, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon was target No. 1 in Washington. The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee had just criticized President Obama's budget proposal to reduce Social Security benefits by switching to a "chained CPI" formula, calling it a "shocking attack on seniors." He did so despite his own party's long-stated goal of reducing long-term entitlement spending. Many of his own party's House leaders, in fact, had urged Obama to publicly include the Social Security change in his budget.
Joe Scarborough, the former Republican House member who is now an MSNBC talk-show host, called the attack "hypocritical" and "shameful," and House Speaker John Boehner publicly distanced himself from it. The Club for Growth, a powerful free-market advocacy group, took its criticism a step further, demanding that a conservative from Walden's 2nd Congressional District challenge the longtime incumbent in a primary. In all, the lawmaker's remarks were written off as folly, an ill-considered missive from a Republican unaccustomed to the spotlight.
Except, many Republicans don't think Walden was wrong. They might express their views quietly, but they are nonetheless firm: As the man ostensibly in charge of electing House Republicans, Walden was not only right to speak out, he also had a responsibility to do so.
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.
"Republicans have little hope of ever achieving meaningful entitlement reform if members feel powerless to defend themselves," said Brock McCleary, a former deputy political director at the NRCC. "The reason we survived the Democrats' ... Medicare attacks in 2012 was because we figured [out] how to counterpunch. Walden is merely showing the party how you can muddy the waters on Social Security. That's his job."
Walden's tactic on Social Security is similar to what the party did to defuse attacks against the GOP proposal to overhaul Medicare: Instead of arguing the merits of their own plan, they assailed Democrats for cuts included as part of the health care law — even though Rep. Paul Ryan's Republican budget included the identical reductions.
Still, it's not as if the carping over Walden's remarks was illegitimate, or that it won't necessarily harm the GOP in the long run. It did damage the party's credibility on its foremost issue — long-term debt reduction — and reinforce the perception held in some corners that House Republicans are simply incapable of governing. House Democrats responded incredulously. "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."
But Walden's job is to elect House Republicans. And on that score, many in his party want to remove the target from his back.