Bad Slasher Movie
The Democrats' sad, stupid, doomed campaign to keep the payroll tax cut.
On Tuesday, as Washington rebuilt itself after a less-than-apocalyptic earthquake, a joke started to circulate on Twitter and Facebook. The popular version went like this: There was just a 5.8 earthquake in Washington. Obama wanted it to be 3.4, but the Republicans wanted 5.8, so he compromised.
Funny stuff (unless your name is Pat Robertson). From the tables of Pew polls to the blogs at the Huffington Post, Democrats are yowling about President Obama's habit of giving Republicans most of what they want.
It's not just policy—there's only so much you can do with John Boehner running the House and Mitch McConnell putting up sandbags in the Senate—it's also politics. The White House's big idea right now is extending, and maybe expanding, the temporary payroll tax cut that knocked the Social Security portion of FICA down from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. *
Why do Democrats like this idea? Because it has worked so well so far? According to Jared Bernstein, who was Joe Biden's chief economist when the White House got this cut included in the 2010 tax deal … sort of.
"We don't have great evidence," he says. "But, jeez, another 2 percent on your paycheck has got to help strapped families. In aggregate it was about $110 billion, and many of us believe it helped to offset the increase in gas prices this year."
Bernstein calculates that keeping the tax cut would mean 8.6 percent unemployment by the end of 2012 and that nixing it would mean 8.9 percent. But that's not why Democrats like the idea. No: According to Sam Stein's reporting, and according to a pile of quotes from frantic Democrats, they like the idea because it makes Republicans look like hypocritical jerks. Asking Republicans why they're against it makes them look so awkward. They set a goal for this week: "hammering the hypocrisy of individual members who signed [Grover] Norquist's pledge."
And they hammered away. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., one of the Democrats most endangered/doomed by redistricting damned the GOP with "a level of hypocrisy that's hard to get your mind around." ThinkProgress—a project of a nonpartisan think tank, of course—headlined a report "Republicans To Oppose Tax Cut for Working People."
Something is getting lost in the campaign: Why goad Republicans into supporting tax cuts? It's an irritating short-term strategy. What does it get Democrats in the long term if they say this tax cut can't be undone?
"It's completely hapless negotiating!" says Nancy Altman, the co-director of the defend-the-New-Deal-at-all-costs group Social Security Works. "You're taking something the other side wants and then begging them to take it. I'd expect that Republicans would eventually take it, but in exchange for some other concession. What a perfect position to be in, when you're begging me and offering me more if only I'll vote for something I want already."
Altman has an agenda here—her group believes that weakening FICA for any period of time weakens Social Security—but she's not wrong about the Republicans. The point Democrats are making when they trot out this zinger is that Republicans used to support a payroll tax cut. The liberal punditocracy spent part of this week proving it. Jonathan Chait dug up the story of the early 2008 stimulus plan, $300 billion of tax cuts, and found that Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas—now one of the conservatives on the "supercommittee"—once grooved on the idea. Greg Sargent unsuccessfully but tirelessly tried to get Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform say whether letting the tax cut expire would count as a tax hike and thus violate the group's no-taxes pledge.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.