When Chris Christie went to New Hampshire to propose the most sweeping set of changes to Social Security in recent memory last week, he set off a rush among top Republican contenders, including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, to offer their own aggressive plans for the program.
But according to many Republican strategists, Christie's dive into Social Security did more than that—it pushed the party in a perilous direction ahead of the 2016 election. Because while "entitlement reform" has become part of the Republican platform, Social Security, the strategists say, is a topic still too perilous to touch.
"People have to talk about it with sensitivity and they have to be very, very cautious about what words they use, because once you start scaring seniors, you're pretty much done with," said Katie Packer Gage, who served as deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012.
Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton, clearly thought Republicans had erred. Speaking in New Hampshire, the presumptive Democratic nominee chided the GOP opposition for "loose talk" about Social Security. "What do we do to make sure it is there and we don't mess with it, and we don't pretend that it is a luxury?" Clinton asked. "Because it is not a luxury, it is a necessity for the majority of people who draw from Social Security."
While some Republican presidential candidates and their strategists think entitlement politics are less dangerous now than a decade ago, when President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security crash-landed in Congress, others see it as one of the few issues that could lose the eventual Republican presidential nominee real votes next fall.
They've certainly shied away from it in the past; already, their debate is more robust than any discussion of Social Security that occurred during between GOP primary candidates in the 2012 election.
Instead, recent Republican efforts on social programs have focused more on Medicare. Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul the medical-payment system became a new benchmark position for the party and, initially, was seen a major political liability.
That the GOP devised a successful way to deflect attacks about Ryan's Medicare plan—the Romney-Ryan ticket won a higher share of the senior vote in 2012 than it did in 2008—gives some Republicans hope that they could do the same with Social Security.
"As an issue, Medicare is something I'm glad to see people continuing to talk about, and for Romney, I thought it was a net positive," said Lanhee Chen, who was Romney's policy director in the 2012 campaign. "I don't see any reason why Social Security can't be in the same posture as Medicare with a little bit of work."
It wasn't luck that let Republicans neutralize Medicare as a wedge issue. The party fought back aggressively at charges that it was cutting money from the program, accusing Democrats of siphoning fund from the program via Obamacare.
But when it comes to Social Security, Republicans won't have a cudgel like Obamacare to hit back against charges that they want to cut the entitlement program. Even within the Republican base, misdirected rhetoric about it can prove harmful. But the party has grown less fearful about picking a fight.
"One side of this is fear of backlash from voters nearing retirement age," said Brock McCleary, a Republican strategist who was deputy political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2011 and 2012, when it organized Republicans' response to attacks on the Ryan budget. "But I think that you increasingly see that a lot of that angst and fear has been a little bit negated as Republicans "¦ have dealt with difficult entitlement issues" over several elections.
There are few single-issue Social Security voters, McCleary said. "I think most Republicans can safely say you will or will not be elected president and your position on Social Security will have very little to do with it."
The party is now acting out a debate that started, albeit in much smaller form, four years ago.
In 2011, Romney criticized rival Rick Perry for calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme," an attack that helped dent the Texas governor's momentum in the primaries. Now, Mike Huckabee—the former Arkansas governor positioning himself as the field's populist alternative—appears to be reading from Romney's playbook. "I would say it's not just no. It's you-know-what no," he told The Daily Caller. "That we're going to rip this rug out from under people who have dutifully paid in their entire lives to a system."
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The attack might seem a strange one in a party that preaches limited government. But Republican voters, who are increasingly older and blue-collar, are strongly supportive of Social Security. A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll from January of 2012 found that among white working-class men and women, the bedrock of the GOP base, more than 80 percent said they didn't think the program should be cut to ease the deficit.
If embracing aggressive changes to Social Security hurts in a GOP primary, it's a safe bet it could hurt in a general election, too. Republican strategists fear that's a key difference between talking Medicare reform and talking Social Security reform. Ultimately, reforming Medicare is about trying to improve a service, they say, while reforming Social Security boils down to cutting the size of Social Security checks.
"If Republicans don't tackle entitlement reform when they're governing, they're fools," said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist. "But if they tackle it while they're campaigning, they're greater fools."
The fiery Wilson, who once produced a TV ad linking former Sen. Max Cleland to Osama bin Laden, is nobody's idea of a moderate squish. But he says any Republican campaign bogged down in the details of taking away benefits from a popular entitlement plan—and consequently, not offering an optimistic vision for the future—is doomed to fail miserably.
"Why would you possibly want to hand Hillary Clinton the sword with which to cut off your head?" he asked. "It would be political malpractice of the highest order."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.