If there's one thing liberals know about their representatives in Washington, it's that those Democrats are a bunch of wimps. All Republicans have to do is draw back their fists, and Democrats will flinch. "What if they criticize us???" they whine, as they cave in on progressive principles again and again. That's the story liberals tell, and much of the time it's true.
But nothing is true in politics one hundred percent of the time, and so yesterday we saw Republicans cave in on the payroll tax cut extension. There's a lot of technical parliamentary hoop-jumping involved, but basically the House is going to pass the two-month extension, and in exchange there will be a conference committee that attempts to work out a one-year extension. So we get to go through this all over again in two months.
Which is probably just fine with Democrats. After all, they finally found an issue on which they could make Republicans knuckle under. Republicans don't seem to like this tax cut, and it's hard to come to any conclusion other than that the reason is that the cut is directed at working people without doing all that much for the Republicans' traditional constituency of the wealthy. So they oppose it, thereby not only looking obstructionist but reinforcing every mean thing Democrats say about them. And Democrats hung tough for a change, extending out a debate defined by their desire to help working people and Republicans' desire to put coal in everyone's stocking. It was such a PR nightmare for the GOP that everyone from Karl Rove to the Wall Street Journal editorial page told House Republicans to suck it up and pass the damn thing to stop the political bleeding.
With ten and a half months until the election, Democrats (including President Obama) have finally figured out that economic populism is a winner for them. You're probably saying, "What the hell took them so long?" It's a good question, but we should remind ourselves that Democrats are not as feckless as they're often portrayed, and Republicans are not as ruthlessly unified as they're often portrayed. What looks like Democratic wimpiness is sometimes just reasonable people choosing the better of two bad options (but sometimes it is actual wimpiness). And whatever unity they've shown in the past, Republicans are now as divided as anyone has seen them in a long time.
It's possible that one they have a presidential nominee, the GOP will get itself into shape in order to defeat the president they hate so much. But if this episode is any indication, that may be a tall order. Every Republican with a brain in his or her skull knew days ago that this was going very, very badly for them, but it took them an extraordinarily long time to do something about it. That could be an indication of what the fall campaign will look like.