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Trump’s Push to Cut Payroll Taxes Opens a Democratic Line of Attack

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Because the taxes provide funding for Social Security, Democrats have seized on the issue as they try to erode support for the president among older voters.
When President Trump announced that he was unilaterally deferring payroll taxes to bring economic relief to struggling Americans, he and his aides thought it would allow them to frame him as pro-worker. But the move comes with political risks. Eliminating the payroll tax could jeopardize the funding stream for Social Security, which is one of the government’s most popular programs, providing benefits to 64 million people. The president has given Democrats an opening to raise Social Security cuts as an issue in the final months of an election in which his support among older voters already appears to be shaky. On Monday, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. capitalized on the opportunity. “Donald Trump said that if he’s re-elected, he’ll defund Social Security,” he tweeted. “We can’t let that happen.” The Democratic National Committee amplified the line of attack the next day, blasting out a statement that highlighted “At Least 7 Times Trump Said He Will Permanently Eliminate Funds To Social Security And Medicare.” Beyond the complicated legal questions about whether Mr. Trump can circumvent Congress by using executive actions to create his own tax-and-spend policies, and the economic debate about whether a payroll tax even helps the right people (it does nothing for the unemployed), the proposal leaves Mr. Trump juggling political priorities. He is now balancing the potential benefits of giving working people more money in their paychecks — at least temporarily — versus undercutting his own pledge from the 2016 campaign that he would protect entitlement programs. His economic advisers have insisted that the temporary tax deferral, which Mr. Trump announced on Saturday, will have no effect on Social Security or Medicare. “The president in no way wants to harm those trust funds,” Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said on Sunday. “There would be no reduction to those benefits. And the president’s made that very clear.” But many older Americans — a key base of support for Mr. Trump in the 2016 election — have already grown wary of him because of their anxiety over the coronavirus, and may not be convinced by those promises. Adding to the confusion is that Trump campaign advisers are saying that the president wants to go further and pass a permanent payroll tax cut if he is re-elected. The administration has not explained how Social Security would be funded if a tax dedicated to it evaporates. When it comes to cutting to Social Security, “is that really a debate you want to have?” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. Trump advisers said they expected Democrats to “demagogue” on Social Security. But they said they expected those attacks would fall flat, partly because the specter of entitlement cuts has been raised so often as to lose meaning, and because he had promised since his 2016 campaign that he would not touch Social Security and Medicare.

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