Here we go again. Republicans just can’t help acting like Republicans. Surrender first, fight later, but only if absolutely necessary. It’s in their DNA. They’re only comfortable playing also-rans, perennial scrubs, running under their traditional mantra: “Vote for us; we’re bad, but not as bad as you think.”
The Democrats haven’t been on the run like this in a generation, maybe two, but instead of pursuing his advantage, the man most likely to be the speaker if the Republicans take over the House is already talking compromise on taxes, the one issue that unites independents and party regulars.
Rep. John A. Boehner, who has seen some big crowds in some big towns and was inspired to talk some big talk, meekly retreated Sunday after a week of hearing himself criticized — mildly, given the givens — by President Obama. He says he’s willing at last to support the president’s proposal to begin the dismantling of the George W. Bush tax cuts. Those cuts expire this year unless they are extended by Congress.
“We welcome John Boehner’s change in position,” said Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary. But he said the White House was not impressed by Mr. Boehner’s resolve, and the president obviously expects further evidence of Republican eagerness to throw in the white towel. Mr. Boehner can expect the White House to continue snapping at his ankles.
The Republican elites have no taste for tea, not even of the mildest Ladies’ Fruitberry Herbal variety. The elites have been rattled by the Tea Party revolt, not sure what it means, nor whether and how it can be controlled (or, preferably, becalmed). Instead Mr. Boehner and his timid fellows think the revolt against Barack Obama and his radical agenda is all their doing. They’re unable to comprehend the fact that the Republican triumph in November, if there is one, will be because the Republicans are the only available alternative. Any lifeboat looks good if you’re standing in a cold rain on the deck of a sinking ship, no matter who you might have to sit next to.
The Republicans could be fighting to retain the full plate of the Bush tax cuts. A growing number of Democrats, even some of the densest among them, understand that letting the tax cuts lapse is the equivalent of a tax increase, and a tax increase in the midst of a recession edging toward depression is an idea so dumb that even Barney Frank, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi can get their brains around it.
President Obama understands. He has been distracted lately, having to reassure the radical Muslims, busy burning American flags and building a triumphant mosque at ground zero to celebrate Sept. 11, that we still love them no matter what they do. But he is putting his full attention to spinning the coming Obama tax increase as a tax cut. “Let me be clear to Mr. Boehner and everyone else,” the president says. “We should not hold middle-class tax cuts hostage any longer.”
What is clear is that the president and his partisans want to dismantle the Bush tax cuts, piecemeal if necessary but dismantle them he means to do. That’s what his class-warfare campaign is all about: Eliminate the cuts first for those making $250,000 a year, denounce these evil taxpayers as “billionaires,” and set up the abuse of everyone else later.
The Boehner response to the Democratic attempt to make him look cold, unfeeling and uncaring is not resolute refutation, but to cut and run. He heard the sound of the guns, and it was time to run the other way. “If the only option I have is to vote for those at $250,000 and below, of course I’m going to do that. But I’m going to do everything I can to fight to make sure that we extend the current tax rates for all Americans.” Just not now. Someday, just not today.
The president himself dispensed hints of compromise before Mr. Boehner’s Sunday remarks. In an interview last week with George Stephanopoulos, the president declined an invitation to say he would veto legislation to preserve and extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone. Rather than see this as an opportunity to push his advantage, Mr. Boehner couldn’t wait to pipe up with the traditional Republican battle cry: “Me, too.”
The president and his taxaholics now have the opportunity to exploit. The Republican talk of compromise eases the pressure on timid and irresolute Republicans, of whom there are many, and on frightened Democrats, who had felt angry voters with tea on their breath breathing down their necks. The Republicans have averted another victory, and just in time.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.