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Kabuki complications on payroll tax battle

Posted: December 21, 2011 at 1:31 pm   /   by

A consensus appears to be building that the House GOP has, so far at least, botched the politics of the payroll tax cut extension pretty badly.

The Wall Street Journal asks How did Republicans manage to lose the tax issue to Obama?

The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play.

Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter, although he’s spent most of his Presidency promoting tax increases and he would hit the economy with one of the largest tax increases ever in 2013. This should be impossible.

Ed Morrissey continues the discussion of the “fiasco”:

The Keystone XL concession was a real victory for the GOP.  For that matter, the two-month extension would have allowed Republicans to force more concessions in the next round of negotiations.  Supposedly, the House GOP worried that having a debate over the tax in February would benefit Obama, but it’s hard to see how.  The one-year extension would mean that Obama wouldn’t have a key policy at risk, and in February most of the political attention will still be on the Republican presidential primary.

Besides, if the House GOP didn’t want this deal, why didn’t they work with McConnell to keep negotiating?  McConnell got most of the Republican caucus to vote in support of the 60-day extension after seeing the Keystone XL concession as a real victory.  The policy itself isn’t the issue, as House Republicans will apparently thunder to the roll-call vote that extends the holiday for a full year.  Now, as the WSJ says, the Republicans on Capitol Hill have formed “a circular firing squad” that will not just put the Keystone XL concession at risk, but will almost certainly boost Obama’s standing with voters at the expense of Republicans, both on and off of Capitol Hill.

An anonymous House aid is calling this a “colossal fumble.”

It’s the kind of situation McConnell and Boehner have long sought to avoid. And now some GOP insiders fear they’ve ceded the upper hand on taxes and the economy to President Barack Obama in the 2012 election year.

“This is a colossal fumble by the House Republicans,” said a senior Senate GOP aide, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about his own party. “Their inability to recognize a win is costing our party our long-held advantage on the key issue of tax relief. It’s time for Boehner and [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor to look these rookies in the eye and explain how the game is won or lost.”

Boehner is doing his best, now that the House has rejected the Senate version, to reengage the Senate:



I understand the principled objection to the two-month extension. Not only is it ineffective as an economic growth tool, but as we posted yesterday, it will cause significant problems for business at a time when they (and the people whom they will hopefully continue to be able to employ) can least afford it.

Right now may not be the time to stand on principle, though. Two things have become clear.

1. Obama is running Truman’s strategy from 1948

In 1948, Truman was expected to lose, and Dewey was expected to win. But Truman deployed a very shrewd strategy: He ran against Congress.

He sent legislation over that he knew Robert Taft was never going to let through. If Taft did let it through, Truman could have said, “See, I got something big done.” If Taft didn’t let it through, he could say that Congress is a “do-nothing” Congress . . . and that’s exactly what he did. And he won (at least in part) because of it. Heads, Truman wins; tails, Dewey loses.

Obama is not as shrewd as Truman, but he has Truman’s example to go by, and a lot of commentators believe that this is the strategy Obama will deploy.

His record is abysmal, and people know it. He’s got nothing else to run on, other than scare-tactics and plain-ol’ scorched-earth nastiness, but his advisers will probably seek to temper that into a sharp tool rather than a blunt instrument. So, his main strategy may very well be to run against the “do-nothing”Congress.”

Now obviously this is absurd on its face. The Dems had Congress since 2006; they only lost the House  a year ago, and they still control the Senate. They have gone 1000 days now without passing a budget, which they’re supposed to do every year. Most of that time was with Democrats in control of both houses. But memories are short and public perceptions get clouded in the heat of the election. So, it looks like Obama will try to kick up just enough dust to squeak through by going after the one political entity whose approval ratings are even lower than his.

From all indications, including recent polling showing Obama’s approval numbers up and congressional Republicans’ numbers down, this strategy can work. The last thing Republicans should be doing is giving Obama ammunition for it.


2. Very little that is “principled” and will actually help the country is going to get through this Senate or past this president.

Sorry, but that appears to be a fact of life. Personally, I am not one of those people who decries gridlock—gridlock is a feature, not a flaw. Sometimes, in order to break the logjam, you have to win another election. By and large, that is the case now. The Democrats hold the Senate and the White House, so they can effectively stop anything. They can just sit back and let the House GOP majority spin its wheels, and then strategically trip them up from time to time. And that is exactly what they have been doing.

The House passed three more common-sense jobs bills last week, bringing the current number of jobs bills awaiting a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate to 25. Each of these bills is focused on removing government barriers – excessive regulations, the threat of tax hikes, and ‘stimulus’ spending policies – that are hurting job growth, and many have bipartisan support. Speaker Boehner has called on President Obama to “urge Senate Democrats to immediately vote” on the 25 jobs bills before them. This week the House is scheduled to consider two more, including the REINS Act. Learn more:

Click the image to learn more about the do-nothing Senate.

The Democratic controlled Senate is actually where the congressional logjam has been, and it is highly hypocritical of the Senate to be indignant that the House voted down one of their bills. Highly.

That is where the truth lies, but this is politics, and politics is often about perception. In spite of the uselessness, on the merits, of the two-month payroll tax extension, perceptions do not appear to be favoring the House GOP right now, and standing on the principle of the thing does not appear to be getting them very far. The Senate is being highly hypocritical, but for right now at least, it appears that they have the upper hand. Boehner is trying to get the Senate to respond, but what incentive do they have? Reid appears to be operating on Obama’s orders, trying to help him run the Truman Strategy.

Boehner has been trying to get traction on the do-nothing Senate meme for a while now, and it doesn’t appear to be working. Right now at least, the Senate is getting away with its hypocrisy.

Some are blaming Boehner for the current state affairs, others are question Mitch McConnell’s role, including Arizona’s own Rep. Jeff Flake:

“He kind of hung us out to dry to be honest with you,” Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said of McConnell.

Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, who’s running for the Senate in Arizona, said he was surprised by McConnell’s deal-cutting with Reid.

“I just thought they have been saying 12 months all along; this just seemed that he would hew a little closer to what the House wanted,” said Flake, an opponent of extending the Social Security payroll tax break.

Senate Democrats, for their part, have demanded that McConnell publicly back the deal he hammered out with Reid during a marathon negotiating session last week.

I understand these positions, but I personally am not here to fix blame. Rather, I am seeing the larger strategic picture: In situations like these, there are four general outcomes:

1. You win on the principle, getting something good for the country in the process, and it’s a political victory too.

2. You win on the principle but lose on the politics. At least you got something good for the country.

3. You win on the politics but lose on the principle. You didn’t get much for the country, but you lived (politically) to fight another day.

4. You lose on the politics and don’t manage to get anything good.

The Senate has made it clear that, by and large, they have no plans to act on very many House bills, and that their goals are focused more on electoral advantage for Obama than on getting things done. Perhaps it is time for the House to accept that and do all it can to avoid getting stuck with option 4.

Of course, this drama has yet to play itself out, and time will tell—and may surprise us—as to what the best outcome politically, and for the country, ends up being.

Christopher Cook

Christopher Cook

Managing Editor at Western Free Press
Christopher Cook is a writer, editor, and political commentator. He is the president of Castleraine, Inc., a consulting firm providing a diverse array of services to corporate, public policy, and not-for-profit clients.

Ardently devoted to the cause of human freedom, he has worked at the confluence of politics, activism, and public policy for more than a decade. He co-wrote a ten-part series of video shorts on economics, and has film credits as a researcher on 11 political documentaries, including Citizens United's notorious film on Hillary Clinton that became the subject of a landmark Supreme Court decision. He is the founder of several activist endeavors, including (now a part of Western Free Press) and He is currently the managing editor of and principal contributor to
Christopher Cook

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Kabuki complications on payroll tax battle