The Republicans’ Payroll Tax Gift to Obama

The Republicans blew the payroll tax debate badly. Former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon on how they lost the argument—and the damage that could do in 2012.

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

Nonsensical dialogue, pointless arguments, and heinous head slaps—all features of the political theater playing out on Capitol Hill this week before Christmas. Cheered on by the Democratic Party, the starring puppets are not Punch and Judy, but Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. And their strings are being pulled while the audience’s pockets are being picked. The GOP has lost control of the narrative once again.

With President Obama’s job approval rating falling to a near historic third-year low, how is it that he is winning the messaging battle over a two-month payroll-tax holiday that will actually have little palliative effect on the ailing, job-starved economy? The answer is simple—Republicans in Congress helped him. They’ve lost control of the language, the argument, and, quite possibly, the war.

Despite the last-minute cave led by a couple of freshmen, the impressions left were deep: the GOP was willing to risk raising taxes on 160 million Americans on Jan. 1. Some happy holiday message. The victim was clear— the middle class. The villain is also clear: those e-e-e-vil Republicans. And the hero is the president who appeared reasonable as he remained removed from the fray, the professor behind the curtains.

Whether for two months or one year, the two percentage-point reduction in payroll taxes is not likely to stimulate the economy. And the costs for the tax holiday are shifted to homeowners, continuing the charade that the Social Security fund, fed by the payroll taxes, is not itself still imperiled. But in following the script set for them, the Republicans’ ham-handed response overshadowed the two victories they had already won— forcing a decision on the job-producing Keystone pipeline and preventing tax increases on job creators.

While the House Republicans’ argument had logical merit—a tax policy with a two-month expiration date does little to inspire certainty—we are beyond the point of principled stands. In a master political ploy, the president has manipulated reality and repositioned himself for 2012: Obama, the tax cutter.

True Republicans came in off the ledge at the last second. But much unnecessary damage was done reinforcing the growing perception that the GOP is clueless, leaderless, and perfectly capable of throwing away a huge advantage they had going into next year's presidential campaign.