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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Wrong-Footing the Republicans

I certainly agree with E.J.. Dionne’s contention that the president is discarding most of his lingering illusions about Republicans. But just as importantly, he’s learning to play them like a violin on occasions. I assessed his ability to flummox Republicans in the State of the Union Address over at TPM Cafe yesterday.

Republicans were very much bystanders last night. Obama did not allude to the midterm elections nor acknowledge the GOP takeover of the Senate. He did not treat Republican attacks on his use of executive authority as some sort of clash of the titans, and briskly bundled most of his veto threats into a single paragraph. His specific economic policy proposals (packaged as “middle class economics”) were exceedingly well-tested and very popular, and because Republicans oppose them all, he left them sitting on their hands.
And he managed to diminish recent GOP complaints and demands, dismissing the Keystone XL pipeline as just another infrastructure project, mocking the Cuba policies he is discarding as archaic, and describing his immigration actions as the exasperated expedient of a president tired of Republican divisions. Obama also probably wrong-footed Republicans by giving so little time to the tax proposals that got so much attention in the last few days. There was no hard-edged “populist” appeal to denounce as “class warfare” or “income redistribution.”

Sen. Joni Ernst’s official “response” to the SOTU Address wasn’t quite as disastrous as, say, Bobby Jindal’s in 2009. But it was empty and mostly focused on her autobiography, and it played right into Obama’s efforts to suggest that the GOP had nothing to “sell” on the economy beyond a controversial pipeline project (a big chunk of Ernst’s speech was about the Keystone XL).

What the evening indicated is that the GOP that came out of the November midterms so full of confidence and ready to put Barack Obama in his place continues to be off-balance and divided when it’s not simply opposing whatever the president proposes. And as the 2016 Republican presidential nominating process heats up–beginning just a few days from now with Rep. Steve King’s candidate vetting exercise in Des Moines, the so-called Iowa Freedom Summit–the vague pieties of King’s junior U.S. Senator tonight just won’t cut it.

Today the big news is that House Republicans have managed to screw up a one-car funeral by adding provisions to a long-awaited federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy that would limit the rape exception. This produced a revolt among House Republican woman and the handful of remaining “moderates” and forced the leadership to yank the bill–intended as a treat for visiting antichoice protesters in Washington for the annual March for Life–and substitute a less base-satisfying reconfirmation of the ban on federal funding for abortions.
No, the 114th Congress is not off to a real good start for the GOP.

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