Debt fades as election issue

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Republicans in tough races aren’t making cuts to government spending and deficit reduction a central part of their campaign messaging—a striking contrast from the 2010 midterms race.

In 2010 and 2012, Republicans focused their arguments on reducing the deficit and cutting Washington’s addition to spending — in addition to attacking ObamaCare. 

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But a year after an unpopular government shutdown triggered by GOP demands to defund ObamaCare, Republicans have largely changed their tune in 2014. 

They are focusing their arguments on President Obama’s failed leadership, hoping to use his low approval ratings as an anchor on Democratic candidates in the House and Senate. 

Arguments about the deficit and out-of-control spending, however, have largely been put to the side. 

“Everybody is just not talking about it,” said Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The deficit is down to a projected $506 billion in 2014 from $1.3 trillion in 2010, one factor that has turned the volume down on the debate. 

“The deficit just doesn’t have the political cache it had before,” Stan Collender, executive vice president at Qorvis MSLGROUP said, “Because one, it’s falling, and two, it’s falling precipitously. Three, the economy is growing. Four, for Republicans to talk about the deficit is a real problem because the follow-up question is well, what would you do about it?”

In his 2015 budget, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) proposed $5 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade in order to balance the budget. The legislation cut funding from Medicaid and food stamps and converted Medicare to a system where recipients could choose to get federal subsidies to purchase private health insurance rather than traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

House Republicans approved the budget, but Ryan’s Medicare language hasn’t been a hot campaign topic.

“It’s an unpleasant subject. The solution is extremely toxic politically,” Bell said of the nation’s long-term budget picture. 

“The last thing you want to do is rile up the elderly against you,” said Joseph Minarik, senior vice president at the Committee for Economic Development.

Few candidates have touched on Medicare or Social Security in the battle for the Senate, though Joni Ernst, who Republicans hope can win a seat held by Democrats in Iowa, is an exception.

In a May debate, Ernst suggested that younger workers should be transitioned to private Social Security plans. She later clarified her remarks by saying privatization is one of many options she would consider.

Democrats have played the comments up, seeking to hurt Ernst. Republicans in turn have accused her opponent, Democratic Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce BraleyVernon wins Iowa House Dem primary June primary fights set stage for Dems’ hopes to take over House GOP group enlists public with opposition research app MORE, of wanting to raise the retirement age for Social Security — something he says he does not support.

Bell said unless candidates are running in a solidly safe district or state, they don’t want to be accused of supporting a substantial debt reduction package.

The budget deal reached after the government re-opened following the shutdown has led to a quiet year on the fiscal front. There hasn’t been a fight over raising the debt ceiling or keeping the government open since the 16-day shutdown. 

Just before leaving to campaign, Congress approved a new government-funding bill that lasts until Dec. 11. When they return after the election, they’ll likely approve a new funding bill to keep the government running until at least early next year, though much will depend on the outcome of the Senate fight. 

The relative budget peace could break sometime next year, particularly if Republicans win back the Senate. 

The clean debt ceiling increase Congress approved last February technically suspends the ceiling until March 15, 2015, but the Treasury Department will likely be able to push that date back further by moving funds around.

“The demand for spending cuts is still there within the [Republican] Party, but right now, I don’t think many people are willing to campaign on it,” Jim Manley, director of the communications practice at QGA Affairs, said. 

“They just want to keep their mouths shut through the election and wait and see what happens with the Senate.”

--This report was updated at 8:19 a.m. on Sept. 29.