White House on Message Even After Dems Nix Tax Vote.

Today, White House adviser David Axelrod spoke with bloggers about the Republican Party's wild new election platform, which has been critiqued pretty effectively by a number of people. But though Axelrod was hoping to focus on the GOP's decision to show their hand, the topic was pushed to the back burner by news that neither Senate nor House Democrats are likely to vote on the administration's plan to keep middle-income taxes from increasing at the end of the year.

"Our goal is to get these tax cuts passed and to give people the certainty they need," Axelrod says. "If we can't get it done before the election, we will insist on it after. We are going to make it very clear every day that those aren't passed, who is blocking this and why."

While Axelrod (and White House spokesperson Jen Psaki) blame Republican obstruction, that's only half-true -- conservative Democrats scuttled plans to bring the bill to the floor, but that wouldn't matter if there were even a handful of Republicans who didn't think that lower taxes for the wealthy were more important. And while the White House is confident that it can make its position clear to voters without holding the vote, there are two broader problems here:

  1. It's Now Or Never For Tax Cuts While it's possible that holding a vote immediately before the election will lead to troublesome compromises as threatened Democrats look to avoid being painted for going after small business (even though that's not true, apparently the better part of political valor is acceding to a lie), it's hard for me to imagine a scenario -- and I invite suggestions -- where passing the president's plan gets any easier after the elections, even in the best foreseeable scenario for his party. Republicans are anticipating just this scenario, and while Axelrod says he's confident that campaign season will reinforce pressure on the GOP -- "middle-class folks ... will not tolerate the Republican Party raising their taxes next January" -- but I just don't see how the math improves.
  2. What's The Agenda? Democrats have made clear why you shouldn't vote for Republicans, and they also have a good line on what they've done in office thus far. What they don't say -- and can't, really -- is what they'll do if re-elected, because they've taken all the low-hanging -- and some of the high -- fruit of the tree already, and because it's very hard to predict what the legislating environment will look like, especially when so many of the things they've tried recently (DREAM, DADT, now the tax cuts) have been blocked. Axelrod was able to mention a few themes -- protecting the middle class, economic growth, education, and global competitiveness -- but few real agenda items -- these tax cuts, the R&D tax credit, infrastructure investments; nothing you could really hang your hat on. Not providing a compelling agenda is fine for Republicans, who want this election to be a referendum, but for Democrats who want to offer a choice, there needs to be more than "terrible things they will do versus things we've already done."

There's still a path for Democrats to ease their way though this election cycle with minimized losses -- the tax cut message survives and remains compelling -- but if they actually want to pass a semblance of the administration's tax plan, I can only see that happening before the election with some heavy presidential leadership.

-- Tim Fernholz

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