Normally in a general election, you’d expect both parties, and both presidential candidates, to moderate some of their maximalist positions. And on some issues, that’s happening in this election.
But not on taxes.
President Obama is actually pushing his party slightly to the left on taxes, while Mitt Romney and the congressional GOP are right where they’ve always been: Either upper income people get their targeted tax cuts extended, or everyone’s taxes go up.
I still believe that’s going to become a hard position for Romney to defend. But even if he wanted to tack to the center, the right wouldn’t let him. Not on taxes. Not in the modern Republican Party. He’s locked into that strategy.
I don’t think it’s just about the GOP base, though. I think there are other considerations at play.
Consider that Obama is offering the GOP the following deal: Extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone’s first $250,000 and we’ll place the tax cuts that benefit only top earners on a separate table. That sounds like the same deal he offered them last time around. But there’s one big difference: This time, his presidency is on the line. In 2010 Republicans rightly recognized that, even if they swept the election (as they ultimately did), delinking tax cuts for the rich with the rest of the Bush tax cuts would amount to abandoning their leverage. Obama would still be president. Democrats would still block, or Obama would veto, any effort to retroactively reinstate those tax cuts.
That’s not the case in 2012, and Obama has been pretty clear: Let’s let the election decide what happens to those top tax rates. If you guys win, you’ll pass all the tax cuts you want anyhow. If I win, we’ll move in a different direction: we’ll let those tax cuts expire, and high earners will pay more.
The negotiating terms are much different this time around. And yet Republicans won’t budge.
Beyond the fact that Grover Norquist and the Club for Growth would be apoplectic, this suggests two things to me.
First, that Republicans aren’t all that confident their guy is going to win. And second, that if Obama does beat Romney, they’ll ignore his mandate and press ahead with the hostage strategy. Or at least they want to preserve that possibility.
If that’s how things shake out, Obama would have other options. But it’s kind of a troubling thought.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.