Why Democrats Surrendered on Taxes

The tax fight was lost before it began, so President Barack Obama decided to play for a tie.

Then, desperate for a bumper-sticker-sized slogan, Democrats tried to shame Republicans out of a tax cut for “millionaires and billionaires.” But they forgot that most Americans want to be rich. Instead of trying to convince families making $251,000 that they’re well off, Obama would have done better telling people over and over that he‘s worth millions, and he’s so rich that he’d be glad to kick down and pay 39.6 percent on his taxes.

And the outgoing lame-duck Democratic majority should remember that throughout 2009, the left insisted that Obama spend, rather than save, his political capital. They pushed as much legislation as they could under the mantra “elections have consequences,” and in the process exposed Obama to a 2010 cycle where he was fresh out of political capital that would have come in handy on the tax issue — or the “Ground Zero mosque” issue, or the Gulf oil spill or WikiLeaks. Elections, indeed, have consequences.

Now some liberals are saying that Obama caved. Even MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough — a Republican — chided Obama for “deciding to throw in the towel on tax cuts before the opening bell rings.”

But the more realistic view, as Slate’s John Dickerson observes, is that postelection items on the Dems’ wish list — like an extension of benefits, or an up-or-down vote on the START treaty — “come with a price determined by the GOP.” So now the president is going his own way. In poker terms, he mucked his hand and stayed at the table instead of going all in before the flop. Here’s how that works:

Obama is counting on getting credit in the short term for rising above partisanship. But even if the economy improves, he’s taking a risk, because that credit won’t come from Republicans. They’re unlikely to reverse course two years from now and agree to let the lower rates expire. Next time around, they’ll insist on more tax cuts and ask for big cuts in government — cuts that will be unpopular with just about everyone. Next time around, Obama is going to have to play a hand.

But if the current compromise pans out for Obama with voters in the long term, one day they might be calling it a great political laydown. Place your bets.

David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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