Watching House Republicans steer their party straight into a ditch over their failure to pass a version of the payroll tax cut has been like observing a car crash in slow motion. But along with the backbiting and second-guessing that have done little to enhance the reputation of the GOP House caucus or that of their leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the debacle also ought to illustrate to Republicans the political resiliency of President Obama and the fact that a GOP victory in the 2012 election is not a foregone conclusion.
That’s an important lesson. Many Republicans have approached the presidential nomination process as if any GOP candidate with a pulse could beat Obama. The ease with which the president has run rings around Boehner on the payroll tax cut not only should bring back disturbing memories of how Bill Clinton beat Newt Gingrich like a drum back in the 1990s but should also show what happens when ideological inflexibility on the part of the GOP allows the Democratic incumbent to play to the center as well as to the left. A few more debacles like this one and Obama won’t have to channel Harry Truman in order to portray his opponents as do-nothing losers.
Republican optimism about 2012 is rooted in a situation that ought to make them the odds-on favorites next year to win back the White House. The president has historically low poll numbers and a terrible economic record. Even the Obama-friendly New York Times conceded this morning in a front-page article that hopes for a recovery are misplaced and economic growth will likely ground to a halt in the first half of 2012.
But as poor as his leadership has been, Obama has all the advantages of incumbency. He also has the ability to demagogue congressional Republicans in a manner that can help shape the contours of the coming election. A campaign that tilts as far to the left (as his appears to be doing) may have trouble attracting independents. But what Obama is trying to do is to set up his opponents as being not merely a band of right-wing extremists who care nothing about working people but also as a pack of incorrigible incompetents.
Such charges may be as unfair as the Democrats’ Mediscare attacks on Paul Ryan’s attempt to reform entitlements, yet after the ill-managed debt-ceiling crisis and this month’s tax cut shenanigans, it’s a label that may well stick.
It’s no surprise that the GOP presidential candidates have run for cover on the payroll tax cut issue. But above all, this episode should concentrate the minds of Republicans on the fact that the general election will be the fight of their lives, not the walkover some partisans expect.