When the first round of Bush tax cuts was passed in 2001, Republicans used the reconciliation process, which, among other things, meant that the cuts would expire in 10 years. At the time, this was generally viewed as not that much of a big deal for them, since nobody wants to raise taxes; the prevailing assumption was that they would end up being extended no matter who was president or who was in charge of Congress come 2011. And it looks like that was a correct assumption.
But last week, former Bush communications director Dan Bartlett characterized it as a "trap," since not only would the cuts be extended, but it would end up pulling Democrats into a debate in which they would be pilloried as tax-raising tax-raisers. Whether they really planned it that way, it sort of happened, but sort of not -- as nearly every poll showed, the Democrats' position (keep the cuts for the middle class, but dump the cuts for the rich) was enormously popular. But, being Democrats, they ended up caving anyway, so Republicans got what they wanted in the end, in terms of the policy. (I'm not rendering an unequivocal thumbs-down on the deal. It certainly was a capitulation, in that it went against the position Obama has held since 2007 on the upper-income cuts. On the other hand, it could have been much worse; see Ezra's argument on the latter.)
And now another question arises. As part of the deal worked out yesterday, the tax cuts will be extended for two years, meaning we can have this debate all over again during the 2012 presidential campaign. Can the White House do a better job in that debate? And what would it take to do so?
Back in the Bush White House, Karl Rove headed what was informally called the "Office of Strategery." His job was to plan the arc of the Bush presidency, not just to think about the issues they were facing that week but to plan for what they wanted to be talking about in six months or a year. As far as I know (and I may be wrong about this), there isn't a similar group of people in the Obama White House doing political strategic planning. But that's what it will take to win that debate: to start planning for it now. Careful planning was one of the things that made Obama's 2008 campaign so extraordinary, but it seems to have been missing in the White House, particularly of late.
-- Paul Waldman
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