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How Are Dems Winning the Payroll Tax Cut Fight?

At first glance, it’s not at all clear that the Democrats should be dominating the PR fight over the payroll tax-cut extension that's stalemated Congress. When the music stopped on the congressional debate, the GOP-controlled House had passed a year-long extension of the tax cut while the Senate had only passed a two-month extension, and the White House had endorsed the latter. The House then rejected the Senate deal for what appeared to be uncharacteristically logical reasons: The deal entailed a half-cooked (actually one-sixth cooked) policy when any economist would tell you that the fully-cooked version (the year-long extension) is far preferable. 

At that point, the two sides took to the media to make their respective cases. Though it’s still not clear how it'll ultimately shake out, the verdict from this morning’s papers isn’t good for Republicans. Here’s a brief sampling of headlines courtesy of Mike Allen:

N.Y. Times col. 1, “HOUSE VOTE BARS BRIEF EXTENSION OF TAX REDUCTION: EXPIRATION DRAWS NEAR -- Obama Assails Boehner as a Defiant G.O.P. Closes Ranks”
Financial Times, “Republican vote blocks payroll tax deal: House rejection fuels prospect of levy rise -- Fresh round of fiscal brinkmanship starts”
WashPost 1-col. lead, “Congress leaves amid tax impasse: PAYROLL LEVY MAY RISE FOR MILLIONS -- House rejection of deal carries risks for GOP”

And that’s before you get to the kicker, which is this body-blow of an editorial from the otherwise nauseatingly sympathetic Wall Street Journal editorial page. The headline says it all: “The GOP's Payroll Tax Fiasco: How did Republicans manage to lose the tax issue to Obama?” Actually, not quite all. You also have to read the opening paragraph to appreciate the depth of the despair here: “Given how he and House Speaker John Boehner have handled the payroll tax debate,” the Journalistas write, “we wonder if they might end up re-electing the President before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest.”

So what on earth happened? 

One possibility is that the House GOP isn’t dealing in good faith, and the press has decided to call them on it. That’s usually the most plausible explanation with John Boehner and Eric Cantor et al, and there’s a decent amount of it going on in this case, too. As most people who’ve been following the issue know, for example, the House-passed payroll tax-cut includes a provision that would force Obama to quickly decide the fate of the Keystone oil pipeline. Since it’s an issue that divides the Democratic base (unions v. environmentalists) and unites the GOP, the White House was hoping to postpone the decision till after the 2012 election. Naturally, Republicans want him to decide as soon as possible. 

And that’s hardly the only bad-faith provision in the House bill. The plan also includes some pretty dubious “reforms” of the unemployment insurance system. For that matter, most House Republicans don’t even want to extend the payroll tax cut at all. If you look at the representatives Boehner appointed to a phantom conference committee that’s supposed to work out differences with the Senate (“phantom” because the Senate has no plans to participate), most of them are on record griping about the payroll tax cut.

Still, this doesn’t strike me as the reason House Republicans are suddenly getting killed here. If bad-faith were somehow disqualifying in Washington—even this sort of transparently bad faith—Paul Ryan could have never developed a reputation as a budget sage, and his “Path to Prosperity” would have never caught on among the political media as a serious deficit-reduction plan, which it’s not. (In any case, the Senate compromise that Democrats favor also expedites the Keystone decision.)

Another possibility is that the internecine GOP split is killing Boehner and his House colleagues. The Senate, after all, passed its payroll tax cut compromise by an 89-10 margin, meaning that dozens of Republicans voted for it. Those Republicans then promptly left Washington thinking they’d wrapped up their business for the year. When they heard that this wasn’t the case, many of them got downright ornery and started kvetching at their House colleagues—in public. The press of course loves stories in which factions of the same party turn on one another, and so it’s not surprising that they played this high in their stories. 

But this, too, seems insufficient as an explanation for why the House GOP has taken on so much water these last two days. McConnell actually backed Boehner when he first announced that the House was going to nix the Senate deal. And, anyway, internal GOP splits haven’t been especially debilitating for Boehner and his troops this year. Recall that, back during the debt-ceiling debate this summer, McConnell came up with a face-saving solution for all sides which the House Tea Partiers quickly rejected. This did not abruptly shift the storyline from “How is Barack Obama going to appease the GOP so that he can prevent a global financial apocalypse” to “Republicans can’t even agree among themselves.” Since Republicans controlled the House and not the Senate, the press simply treated the House GOP as the effective face of Republicans in Congress and dismissed the McConnell proposal when the House did. 

Finally, there’s the possibility that Democrats were just better organized this time than during their previous confrontations with the GOP. Harry Reid and his messaging operation have been pretty resolute in insisting that the only way to avoid a tax-hike on 160 million Americans come January 1 is to pass the Senate compromise. Obama and the White House have been very effective in reinforcing that message, including an impromptu appearance by the president at the White House daily press briefing yesterday afternoon. 

No doubt this has helped. But Democrats have stuck to their storyline pretty well during key moments of previous confrontations and it hasn’t necessarily helped them. I’m thinking here, for example, of the final back-and-forth over the 2011 budget back in April, when the White House struck a deal with Boehner to avert a government shutdown. The White House, along with Democrats in the House and Senate, pounded Boehner et al in the final day or two of that smack-down for insisting on several whacked out social-policy provisions as part of the deal, like ending government funding for Planned Parenthood. The Dems mostly won the battle—the Planned Parenthood provision died—but lost the war: The entire Washington media concluded that the GOP had bent Obama to its will and forced him to cut nearly $40 billion in spending relative to the previous year’s budget. 

So what, in the end, is different now? In the months leading up to those earlier confrontations, Obama had spent his time privately engaging with the GOP leadership without making much of a public case. When the climactic moment arrived—the PR showdown whose outcome was going to dictate the storyline—no one had a great sense of where he and the Democrats stood on the issue. (This was particularly true during the budget showdown in March and April, a bit less so during the debt-ceiling back-and-forth in the late spring and summer.) 

This time, by contrast, Obama had spent the last three-and-a-half months touring the country and demanding that Congress take action to help the economy. Republicans spent that time blathering on about how to cut government more, how to deny more people access to abortion, how best to affirm our collective trust in God. (Really.) 

This time, when the House GOP tried to pull a fast one—when they tried to claim they were just as concerned about extending the payroll tax cut to support the recovery—the country could look back at three or four months of evidence belying their claims of good intentions. It’s the first time I feel like Obama has truly exploited the huge megaphone advantage he has by virtue of occupying the White House. Hopefully, it’s an indication of things to come.