Republican presidential candidates are attempting a difficult juggling act on the payroll tax debate, trying to balance a traditional anti-tax platform with the political maneuverings of the Republican-controlled House.
For the candidates, the controversy provides the first real test of their leadership on an issue on which their party is not united, foreshadowing what could be one of the most difficult challenges of a Republican presidency: weighing the interests of a strong conservative base wary of any compromise with Democrats against the political deal-making necessary to accomplish policy goals.
Prominent GOP figures in the Senate are openly questioning the leadership abilities of their counterparts in the House, and conservative news outlets and talk radio are lambasting the House strategy, which was to reject the Senate’s two-month extension of the payroll tax and form a conference committee instead.
The influential Wall Street Journal editorial board — traditionally sympathetic to Republicans — dubbed the situation a “fiasco."
"Given how [Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.)] and House Speaker John Boehner [R-Ohio] have handled the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up reelecting the president before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest,” the board wrote Wednesday.
For presidential candidates, the primary concern is weathering the legislative chaos that has overtaken Washington without alienating either their base or key congressional allies.
But the insistence by the House GOP leadership that they will not pass a temporary extension has also threatened the Republican brand, a point of serious concern for the would-be nominees.
“It’s very hard for the legislative branch to outperform the president in communications,” Republican front-runner Newt Gingrich said at a campaign event in Iowa on Wednesday. “He has all the advantages of being one person. He has all the advantages of the White House as a backdrop, and my experience is presidents routinely win.
“Obama is so inept as a president, and the Congress is so dysfunctional as an institution, that we are lurching from failure to failure to failure,” he added.
Still, the former House Speaker attempted to cast the potential failure by Congress to extend the tax cut as the fault of the Senate Democrats.
“They can’t figure out how to pass a one-year extension, so the Senate leaves town?” the former Speaker said Wednesday morning at Iowa campaign event. “It is an absurd dereliction of duty, and it’s game-playing.”
Mitt Romney adopted a similar tack, saying the failure to reach an agreement was the result of President Obama's attempt to demonize Republicans during the debate.
"This president has been intent on attacking, and attack mode is not the way that a leader tries to get people to work together," Romney said on MSNBC.
But he refused to say whether the House should pass the Senate’s two-month extension, which Dems are urging the lower chamber to do.
“I'm not going to throw gasoline on what's already a fire. What we really need is a president that's a leader," Romney added.
The former Massachusetts governor also signaled his support for the House GOP's call for a full-year extension.
"Two months is not very long," he said. "You'd like to get as much done as possible; you'd like to see it go a full year."
The political ramifications in not passing a temporary extension of the payroll tax extension did not escape other Republican challengers, including Jon Huntsman.
"I think we are losing the high ground on tax cuts, and I think that's a bad place for the Republican Party to be," Huntsman said to Fox News on Wednesday.
Other candidates have simply said that they do not support extending the cuts — a risky strategy in its own right. That position contradicts that of most Republican congressional leaders, and could play into Democratic talking points about GOP resistance to the tax cut package.
Michele Bachmann — who along with Ron Paul skipped Tuesday’s House vote to send the bill to conference committee — argued that the tax break had been ineffective in stimulating the economy.
“There isn’t one shred of evidence that that created jobs," Bachmann said Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press.” "It defeated its purpose, plus it put seniors citizens at risk by denying the $111 billion to the Social Security Trust Fund. All it’s doing is adding to the debt.”
That sentiment was echoed last week by Rick Perry during an interview on CNN.
"What I’m looking for … is a president that will get this country back working and that temporary tax hike [sic] on that payroll tax is not even close to getting started," Perry said.
And Rick Santorum said at last week's GOP debate that the tax cut extension — which comes out of taxes earmarked for paying into Social Security — could threaten the program's long-term viability.
"Is there a Social Security Trust Fund or not?" Santorum said. "And is the Social Security system going to be funded by payroll taxes or not? And the president of the United States runs around and talks about how Republicans don't care about Social Security and how they're going to rip apart the Social Security system, and he's the one defunding the Social Security system.
"I'm all for tax cuts," he added. "But to take the Social Security Trust Fund that is so sacrosanct to the Democrats when it comes for election time and then to use that as a tax and then try to beat up Republicans for not supporting the tax cut is absurd."