Social Security, No Frontrunner, Complicate 2012 for GOP

WASHINGTON – Republicans should be wary of the House caucus’ pledge to take on Social Security and Medicare entitlement spending as part of a grand budget deal, a pair of the party’s top political strategists suggested Tuesday.

     If the issue is not handled properly it could damage the GOP next year in its efforts to defeat President Obama and increase its power on Capitol Hill, Carl Forti and Sara Fagen said during the National Journal’s Insiders Conference.

     They appeared alongside Democratic media consultant Tad Devine and pollster Mark Mellman to discuss the emerging 2012 presidential race. They all agreed that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the GOP frontrunner, and that he has serious weaknesses as a candidate. The four strategists concurred that Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann could not win the Republican nomination but could shake up the campaign.

     On Social Security, “If you think about the first time the party tackled this issue, when my boss was in office, he couldn’t even get a hearing on the issue – from his own party,” said Fagen, a White House political director under President George W. Bush. “The Republicans have to be very careful. If it’s clear to people who have paid in that their benefits are not going to change, they’ll get credit for leadership….If the Democrats are able to say ‘Republicans are taking away Social Security from old people,’ it’s a problem.”

    That said, Fagen believes that voters are ready to have the conversation. "They're expecting it," she said.

     Forti, the political director of American Crossroads, a complex of GOP third-party campaign groups that had a prominent role in the 2010 elections, said the entitlement issue is bound to sting whoever touches it first, though it needs to be addressed.

     “We just bailed out the banks, we bailed out the auto industry,” said Forti, who was an adviser to GOP candidate Mitt Romney in 2008. “People just don’t believe the government is going to let Social Security go bankrupt…We haven’t sold the problem and it’s hard to articulate a solution when you haven’t sold the problem.”

      Romney has the gravitas, the ability to raise money and the connections to qualify as the frontrunner but he has several factors against him, including that he enacted a health-care plan in Massachusetts with an individual mandate to purchase insurance, a model for Obama’s program. His Mormon faith remains a problem with evangelicals who dominate in the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary.

     “His biggest challenge is religion,” Forti said.

    “It’s just a fact that prejudice against Mormons is the last socially acceptable prejudice in America today,” Mellman said. People usually hide their biases when pollsters ask whether they’d vote for a Jewish candidate or an African American candidate but don’t mind volunteering their distrust of Mormons, he said.

     But the biggest strike against Romney is the “flip-flopping” he does to disown his health-care program. “You have the spectacle of a candidate on the campaign trail every single day being forced to denounce his most significant accomplishment,” Mellman said.

    Romney's assets include his ability to raise money - a necessity with Democrats expected to marshal about $1 billion for Obama - and his experience, having run for president in 2008.

    "He is a formidable candidate," Devine said.

     Fagen, the GOP strategist, said that there is no room for both Bachmann and Palin in the GOP field, but that one of them could unite the right. “There is an opportunity,” she said. “I don’t think either one would be the nominee but they’d make things interesting.”

     Devine said that it is a mistake to underestimate an opponent, but if either Bachmann or Palin were to be the Republican candidate, “Barack Obama wins in a landslide.” The reason, he said, “there’s a higher credibility threshold for the office of President of the United States.”

      Though Obama has struggled in early polls against a generic Republican, “when he runs against a real live human being it’s a different contest,” Devine said.