JONATHAN COHN DECEMBER 14, 2010
Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein both speculate today about the possibility of a GOP revolt against the tax cut deal, and tie it to economic growth and the presidential election (as Chait accurately characterizes my post yesterday, I made a wimpy "prediction" that the GOP might defect).
I think they are both correct that it is in the interest of the Republican Party to have the economy tank over the next two years -- especially in 2012. However, I very much doubt that individual Republican pols will care about that. And I specifically include the presidential contenders. I'd be shocked if they take November 2012 into consideration. For the '12ers, it's all about the nomination.
At least it certainly should be, at least in terms of any of them personally achieving the
presidency. Yes, it is quite true that legislation such as the tax deal can affect the economy, and the economy will be as always the biggest single factor pushing the presidential election one way or another. But the effects of this particular bill on the economy are apt to be marginal, and at any rate it's not easy to foresee what will eventually happen if the current deal fails in the House; for all anyone knows, the next try will have even more stimulus.
On the other hand, get on the wrong side of the tax issue, and you're pretty much finished in Republican presidential politics.
The problem for the '12ers, and similarly for Members of Congress pondering the fate of Bob Bennett, is that it's not clear what the "right" side is. Would you rather risk being attacked for going along with the Obama tax boondoggle that raised the estate tax along with all sorts of new wasteful spending and pork...or would you rather risk being attack for voting for The World's Biggest Tax Increase?
You might think that one can examine the bill itself and some set of principles to determine the proper conservative position. If so, you would be wrong. For the relevant value of "conservative" (sorry, Andrew Sullivan), what matters here is what movement conservatives will believe going forward. That's especially true on something like this, in which there's no obvious reason to believe or way to prove that either a yes or no vote is in favor of lower taxes.
What that means for House Republicans is that if there is a consensus among the presidential candidates (and other party leaders, including Rush Limbaugh and other high-profile conservative yakkers), they are highly unlikely to oppose that consensus -- and without one, they'll be guessing which way it plays out over time.
What it means for the presidential candidates is a bit trickier. No one wants to be left on the wrong side of it, but what counts as the right side depends in large part on what each of them does. At least that's true for the frontrunners; for the longshots, it might make sense to see the consensus, go the other way, and argue that the rest are just Washington sell-outs. And of course part of the calculation is that Members of Congress actually will be stuck with votes (sorry, Thune), while the others will find it easier to fudge.
So that's the politics of it, I think -- just remember that whether my analysis of the specifics is correct or not, what they're all thinking about is surely nomination politics, not the general election. Indeed, this is a familiar and frequent feature of American politics: there are lots of situations in which the party as a whole has one interest, but individual politicians within that party have very different interests. See, for example, redistricting. It's not always predictable which set of interests will prevail, but in this case I'm confident that it's the nomination interests of each politician that matter, rather than the general election interest of the party.