WITH THE Iowa caucuses just 10 days away, tradition dictates that the nation’s political attention should be riveted upon the race for the Republican presidential nomination. But while that contest remains wide open, the focus of attention swung to Washington this week, where a revolt by Tea Party freshmen has jeopardized a bipartisan agreement to extend a payroll tax cut that would save the average family about $1,000 over the course of a year.
This isn’t the first time that the Tea Party caucus has defied, and thereby humiliated, House Speaker John Boehner, who let his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, negotiate a two-month extension that passed 89-10 last week and appeared so certain to become law that the Senate left town.
But this latest episode is more damaging than earlier revolts over continued funding for the government and raising the debt ceiling because it threatens to make Republicans culpable for raising taxes — which they supposedly consider a cardinal sin — and in defiance of a bipartisan agreement that would avoid this. Their intransigence has pitted Republicans against one another. On Monday, Senator Scott Brown, who voted for the cut, said, “The House Republicans’ plan to scuttle the deal to help middle-class families is irresponsible and wrong.’’ In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that not only is it taking a toll on congressional Republicans, and could harm the party’s presidential hopefuls, but it’s also helping President Obama.
Tea Party conservatives are insisting on a full-year extension paid for by cutting programs that Democrats hold dear. In the past, refusing to compromise has proved a fruitful negotiating strategy: The White House often meekly conceded much of what was being demanded. But this time, the revolt has come after a bipartisan vote, and on an issue — tax cuts — that’s supposed to unify Republicans. Instead, they’re in disarray and Democrats are the ones unified in support of the cuts — a reversal of the customary positions. It only adds to the appearance of bad faith that Republicans’ sudden reluctance involves a tax cut that broadly benefits the middle class rather than the rich.
Voters may be tiring of such behavior. A new CNN/Opinion Research poll shows a five-point jump in Obama’s approval rating to 49 percent, a rise also reflected in another national poll. “Obama’s approval rating appears to be fueled by dramatic gains among middle-income Americans,’’ said Keating Holland, who directed the CNN poll. “The data suggest that the debate over the payroll tax is helping Obama’s efforts to portray himself as the defender of the middle class.’’
That’s no certainty, since the basis of approval ratings is notoriously difficult to pinpoint. But a new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that, by a measure of 46-41 percent, more voters trust Obama than Republicans on taxes — a reversal of recent history — and also trust him more (50-35 percent) to protect the middle class.
For Republicans in Congress, this poses an obvious problem, since the public’s distrust will only rise should their obstinacy drive up everybody’s taxes. But it also poses a problem for the party’s presidential candidates. Since none has emerged as a clear front-runner, they are all scrambling to win over the conservative base. This has allowed congressional Republicans, themselves at the mercy of the Tea Party, to set the conservative agenda, which has had the effect of pulling the presidential field even further to the right.
This is one reason why Mitt Romney belatedly championed the House budget (even after House Republicans made clear they won’t act on it) and attacked Newt Gingrich for calling it “right-wing social engineering.’’ And it’s why Gingrich has declared his support for the payroll tax revolt, even though it is unpopular with the public and even with some elements of his own party.
The danger for Romney, Gingrich, and the other contenders is that they’ll come to be seen as captive to the Tea Party, whose popularity has plummeted. That’s why every Democratic attack these days gleefully emphasizes the connection, whether or not it’s justified. And since, when it comes to the payroll tax, it is entirely justified, those attacks will be all the more effective.
Joshua Green is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. His column appears regularly in the Globe.