In a few weeks, the two-month payroll tax holiday extension Congress granted expires, and House Republicans have to decide whether to stop it or capitulate. The showdown approaches as the Republican Congress seems to have reached a turning point. Like their counterparts from sixteen years before, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives last year filled with revolutionary zeal, assuming that they could leverage their hold over one branch of Congress into sweeping changes in the national agenda. And like their predecessors, they blundered into high-profile confrontations with a Democratic president and suffered prolonged and deep damage in their public standing, with each new defeat slowly leeching the fanatical determination out of them.
The Republicans, to be sure, are still plenty full of crazy. The ideological zeal remains almost fully intact, but the political zeal – the sheer bloody-minded insistence that steadfastness would invariably bring triumph – is always the first to flag. Signs have been popping up for a few weeks now. At their retreat last month, a pollster told House Republicans that their polling numbers had collapsed while Congressional Democrats have actually seen theirs improve.
The larger problem is that President Obama has rehabilitated his own political standing in large part by highlighting the opposition of congressional Republicans. The Republican strategy has been to block and delay Obama’s agenda at every turn, and Obama has absorbed most of the backlash from a public that tends to hold the president singularly responsible for all political outcomes. Obama’s campaign of publicly highlighting Republican opposition has simultaneously helped to absolve him of at least part of the blame and made him look more like a strong leader.
I was skeptical last October that Obama’s initiative would help his approval ratings, but it looks like I was wrong. Obama’s poll numbers have climbed over the last several months, with his net job-approval rating, which had bottomed out at minus ten percentage points, approaching parity. The improving economy surely has helped. But it’s notable that the economy hasn’t helped Congress, which has seen its approval actually fall over the same span. It has all helped Obama’s strategy of making voters judge him against a concrete alternative, one that happens to be pervasively unpopular.
Republicans are beginning to grasp their own inadvertent complicity in Obama’s comeback. Some, of course, believe that their failure lies in having compromised too much. But political realism is advancing. Representative Tom Cole bluntly asserts that his party simply needs to disappear from the national debate: “The big thing for us is to not be part of the conversation instead of trying to inject ourselves into it.” It’s sound advice. If Republicans weren’t charging around threatening to overturn decades of American social policy and possibly plunge the world into economic crisis if Obama refuses to accede to their goals, Obama would have a harder time defining himself in opposition to them.
The payroll tax fight offers the first test of whether or not the new breeze of tactical realism will prevail, or be overwhelmed by countercurrents of militant obstruction.