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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Outing the GOP’s Phony ‘Bipartisanship’

Many progressive Democrats are still grumbling about President Obama’s participation in the ‘Slurpee Summit’ with Republican leaders, some of whom have proclaimed the destruction of his presidency as the mother of all GOP priorities. These progressives feel he is being suckered again, not without reason, since there are zero indications that Republicans are negotiating in good faith or willing to give up anything at all to cut a deal.
I hope I’m not in denial here, but I have to believe Obama was not being suckered. He knows the Republicans aren’t interested in negotiating, but he feels he has to do bipartisan kabuki for one or more of three possible reasons: 1. polls strongly indicate the public wants Republicans and Democrats to work together, and even a gesture in that direction is better than no outreach; 2. The Slurpee Summit provided an opportunity to raise public awareness of the GOP’s obstructionism, thereby advancing support for holding the line on letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy; and 3. If he must cave, his bipartisan gesture makes it easier for him to cave a little, instead of total capitulation.
The alternative, almost too grim to contemplate but predicted by some observers, is that President Obama will capitulate on tax cuts for the rich because he feels it is his only chance to get other legislation passed in the lame duck session, after which his options diminish severely.
Wince-provoking as was Obama’s apology for not not adequately reaching out to Republicans during his first two years in office, it just may prove to have been a clever opening move. A little humility can become the image of a politician in trouble and enhance his cred as a leader who negotiates in good faith, especially when the other side tends to express disagreements in bilious diatribes. Obama’s proposed freeze on pay for federal workers, however, may look even worse if he caves on extending tax cuts for top earners.
Now the my-way-or-the-highway Republicans are threatening to obstruct all legislation, unless the Bush tax cuts are renewed for the rich. Public opinion data suggests they are on shaky ground. Undaunted, Speaker Pelosi is reportedly preparing a vote on keeping the tax cuts for those earning less than $250K only.
She is on more solid ground in terms of public opinion. There are surveys which indicate that most of the public believes top earners should pay more taxes, such as the Gallup/USA Today poll conducted 11/19-21, which found that respondents favored new limits for “how much of wealthy Americans’ income is eligible for the lower rates” over keeping the “tax cuts for all Americans regardless of income” by a margin of 44 percent to 40, with 13 percent favoring allowing the tax cuts to expire. So, 57 percent of those polled oppose keeping the Bush tax cuts at current levels for the wealthy.
The Republicans, however, are practicing impressive message discipline, always inserting “job-killer” before the term “tax hikes,” and jabbering about how the rich need the Bush tax cuts renewed because they are all hard-working small business folks who, shucks, just want to hire more workers with their hard-earned incomes. Dems can sweeten the expiration of upper income cuts in public perception with a significant tax incentive for small businesses to hire and retain workers.
As has been noted repeatedly since the midterms, polls indicate quite clearly that much of the public has limited faith in the GOP to do what is right for the country, even though midterm voters wanted to punish the majority party. Regarding bipartisanship, a Reuters/Ipsos survey conducted just before the midterms found that 56 percent of respondents (66 percent of Democrats, 47 percent of Republicans, 52 percent Independents) agreed that it was more important for “politicians in congress to work with members of the other party and make consensus policy” than to “stick to their principles and hold to the issues they campaigned on.” (38 percent agreed, 29 Dems, 48 Republicans, 39 Independents)
It’s helpful to know that bipartisanship has substantial public support. But it would be good if some poll would shed a little more light on public perceptions about which party is making the most credible bipartisan effort. An August Ipsos/Public Affairs poll indicated that 28 percent of respondents blamed Democrats more for “the fighting between parties and branches of government,” while 36 percent blamed Republicans more. It would be even better to see what opinions about bipartisanship failure do to influence candidate choice. The responses to that one could be very helpful in formulating Dem strategy leading up to 2012.

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