Why It’s All Up to the Prez Now

September 13, 2010 8:54 a.m.

Political campaigns often include inflection points where key decisions on each side, taken over a short period of time, can have a vast effect on the outcome of the election. This looks like one of those moments. Despite being in the House leadership for over a decade, John Boehner’s performance yesterday on Face the Nation showed he’s still out of his league as a party leader on the big stage. Boehner gave the president and the Democrats a big opening by conceding that he’d vote for an extension of only those tax cuts on incomes under $250,000 a year.

But the first response from the Senate Democratic leadership we’ve heard is that, in their view, Boehner’s concession is not particularly relevant since the real fight is in the Senate, and turns on whether the Democrats can overcome a Republican filibuster. And that suggests that the top Senate leadership is locked in the sort of parliamentary myopia that renders them basically incapable of dealing with this in the context of the November elections.Legislation and politics aren’t two separate worlds. Each feeds off each other, as the Democrats learned to their profound discomfiture during the Health Care Reform debate last year. Especially on the cusp of an election, any inability to grasp this can and usually is fatal. Reasoning that the views of the GOP leadership in the House are secondary because the bill has to get through the Senate only makes sense if your field of vision doesn’t extend more than half a mile out of your Senate office.

The President has three key interests.

First is to push policies that generate more demand in an economy that appears to be stumbling without signing on to a permanent extension of the upper income tax cuts which won’t stimulate the economy in the short-term and are budgetarily ruinous in the long term.

Second, is to find a footing to galvanize Democrats for the next seven weeks and give them something for him and them to run on. At the moment the Democrats campaign platform appears to be “Are you kidding? These Republicans are friggin’ crazy. And then did a lot of crazy stuff back when that Bush guy was president!” True enough. But lacks of a certain propulsive force.

Third is to sow dissension in Republican ranks.

Boehner’s comments give the president the opportunity to do all three. And with the legislative leadership on the Hill seemingly hapless, it looks like it will come down to the President and how he plays his cards over the next 48 hours. As our Christina Bellantoni notes in this just published article, the White House seems aware of the opportunity Boehner has given them and is inclined to press the advantage. It’s not clear though whether they yet recognize all the possibilities.

The logical move for the White House is to jump on Boehner’s opening and push for an extension of the Bush tax cuts for incomes under $250,000 and push for a vote before the election. Boehner says he’ll vote for it. See if he really will. The reality is that Boehner himself voted for these tax rates to go up in 2011. The Democrats by and large didn’t; he did. That’s a small but important cudgel to use in making clear that these are tax reductions that the President is pushing for and owning — a point none of the Democrats have handled very well until now.

The president should insist on a vote on these cuts because both parties (allegedly) agree on those. He should further say that the tax cuts only for incomes over $250,000 is where the two parties disagree and that they should make the election a referendum on those cuts. Democrats who want to vote for those two or want to support them on the campaign trail, the president shouldn’t have any problem with that. Everybody run on their position and let the voters decide.

If Boehner and some Republicans vote for the sub-250k bill in the House, great. It allows the president to play them off Republicans in the Senate. If no Republicans vote for it in the House, great. It gives the Democrats a clearer position to run on.

If the Republicans try to filibuster in the Senate, that’s really not a problem for the Dems since filibusters are nothing to be afraid of when you’re pushing something that has public support. Indeed, quite the contrary, especially when you’re doing it in the face of an impending election.

In all of this, the same leverage that is pushing for good policy is working for good politics. And the two reinforce each other.

Handled well, this train of events will inevitably force a division between Republicans who are ideologically committed to the upper income tax cuts and those who just want to avoid being on the wrong side of an issue and get on with getting to November 2nd so they can win a ton of seats in Congress. But that division itself will throw the Republicans off balance, perhaps to a significant degree.

And what if the President says to make the upper income cuts the referendum point of the election and Republicans still have a great election night? Again, really not something the President and the Democrats have much reason to worry over since the crux of the issue is that once the cuts for everyone under $250,000 are locked in, the politics of going to the mat with the president solely over tax cuts for extremely wealthy people will be toxic.

Remember, the political wisdom of the Bush tax cuts was that even though the great bulk of the cuts went to people with very high incomes, it actually did offer cuts across the board, and with non-trivial ones even for middle income earners. Once you strip the two apart, the politics look very, very different. And this is a point a lot of Republicans will quickly realize.

What that all amounts to is that a possible difference of opinion between the House GOP and the Senate GOP (and I’ll believe it when I see it) doesn’t make Boehner’s opening less significant. Indeed, it’s precisely that division that the president and the congressional Democrats want to press.

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