Washington Matters


Boehner's Big Gift to Obama

David Morris

The House GOP's misplay on the payroll tax may cost Speaker John Boehner his job -- and help preserve the president's.



President Obama must have been a very good boy this year. How else to explain the huge present Santa Boehner left under the White House Christmas tree?

The House speaker's decision to block a temporary extension of the payroll tax break and then reverse himself days later will go down as the biggest misplay of the 2012 election cycle. Even with Boehner's reversal in the face of pressure from senators and others in his own party, Obama and his fellow Democrats have a major club with which to play Whack-an-Elephant from now until next November.

Who would have imagined that the party that wouldn't bend when it came to allowing the payroll tax cut to expire for those earning $1 million as part of a deficit cutting proposal would initially decide to allow the tax cut to expire for everyone? Not even Democrats, if writing a dream scenario, would have dared to imagine something so bold, especially after 89 senators -- including 39 Republicans -- voted for the extension.

How special is the gift Boehner and the House Republican caucus gave to Obama? The Wall Street Journal, no fan of Obama's on its conservative-tilting editorial page, warned the other day that Boehner's stand "might end up reelecting the president before the 2012 campaign begins in earnest."

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Even now that Boehner has come to his senses and ordered his troops to support extending the tax break, the political damage is done.

Suddenly, it's not such a slam dunk for Republicans to win control of the Senate, and it just became more difficult for Republican House members to make a case for reelection, giving Democrats something few independent observers thought they had a reasonable shot at: winning back control of the House.

There's still time for most Republicans to recover, and plenty of time for Democrats to make missteps of their own to soften the sting of Boehner's handling of the tax matter.

But for one Republican -- Boehner -- the wound may prove to be mortal. He's been struggling all year to tamp down a civil war between the GOP's tea party and establishment wings. If he stood firm and allowed the payroll tax for Social Security to revert to 6.2% from 4.2%, he stood to lose the backing of many rank-and-file Republicans in the 2013 leadership elections -- provided, of course, that the GOP could win enough seats to stay in power. But by switching course and allowing the House to go along with extending the tax break, he is bound to tick off some of the tea partyers, whose votes he needs to win another term as speaker.

Bottom line: Don't be surprised if Boehner is a one-term House speaker and Obama is a two-term president. That's quite a turnabout from the earlier picture of 2012 that many folks were glimpsing from afar. It was, it seemed, the Republicans' race to lose. With Boehner's help, they just might manage that.

Boehner can still save his party.

But, in the process, it's unlikely he can save himself.



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