Payroll tax debacle: Democrats set a trap and Republicans walked right into it

This is a $121 billion annual drain on the Treasury that makes a mockery of the Democrats’ reverence for the Social Security trust fund and its inviolability. Obama’s OMB director took Social Security completely off the table in debt-reduction talks under the pretense that Social Security is self-financing. This is pure fiction, because the Treasury supplies whatever shortfalls Social Security faces. But now, with the payroll tax holiday, the administration openly demonstrates bad faith — conceding with its actions that the payroll tax is, after all, interchangeable with other revenue and never actually sequestered to ensure future payments to retirees.

The House Republicans’ initial rejection of this two-month extension was therefore correct on principle and on policy. But this was absolutely the wrong place, the wrong time, to plant the flag. Once Senate Republicans overwhelmingly backed the temporary extension, that part of the fight was lost. Opposing it became kamikaze politics.

Note the toll it is already taking on Republicans. For three decades Republicans owned the tax issue. Today, Obama leads by five points, a 12-point swing since just early October. The payroll tax ploy has even affected his overall approval rating, now up five points (in six weeks) to 49 percent.