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Dems Skittish On Obama Tax Cut Proposal Need To Remember 'Political Suicide' Of 2010

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OBAMA TAX CUT PRESSER
President Barack Obama says, "Pass a bill extending the tax cuts for the middle class; I will sign it tomorrow." | AP

Yesterday, President Barack Obama jump-started the recurring battle over the Bush-era tax cuts with his proposal to retain those tax cuts for all Americans on their earnings under $250,000, while reverting to the Clinton-era rates for any income above that amount.

"I'm not proposing anything radical here," Obama said. He's also not proposing anything new. This proposed fix to those tax rates was on the table back in September of 2010 as well. And one of the reasons it never made it off that table? Skittish Democrats, basically. Flash forward to today, and this Politico article titled, "Embattled Dems buck President Obama on taxes," and we find that history is repeating itself:

Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson’s “favored” position is to permanently extend the Bush-era tax cuts for those making less than $1 million, according to his office. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, the North Dakota Senate candidate, also wants to extend the tax cuts for those making less than $1 million. Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who’s running again in his home state, "believes the $250,000 limit is too low but is evaluating how specific proposals would affect the budget," his campaign spokesman said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Monday she is "open" to extending all the tax cuts for those who earn up to $1 million if it’s part of a comprehensive deal to rein in the deficit. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) supports extending tax relief for those families earning up to $1 million, though she said she's also "open" to all middle-class tax relief and backs the president’s latest call.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman and current Virginia Senate contender Tim Kaine also has his own ideas about the matter. He prefers a $500,000 cap, as does New York Rep. Kathy Hochul.

The one thing, of course, that links all of these figures is that they are in tight races. Heitkamp and Kerrey are underdogs in their Senate bids. McCaskill is a very vulnerable incumbent in Missouri. Generally Nelson has looked more solid in Florida, but the latest Quinnipiac poll put his GOP rival, Connie Mack IV, only 1 percentage point behind. Kaine is in a dogfight with former Virginia Sen. George Allen, Berkley is dogged by scandal, and Hochul's position is tenuous, given that she acquired her House seat in a special election triggered by Republican Rep. Chris Lee's resignation.

There's also some resistance coming from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Montana Sen. Jon Tester. (There's a lot of overlap between those who are cool to Obama's tax cut proposal and those who have announced they won't be attending the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, actually.) But for the most part, your skittish Democrats are simply haggling over the dollar figure on the tax cut proposal.

Believe it or not, though, this may actually be an improvement. Anyone remember what happened with the tax cut debate in 2010? You know, when they could have addressed this? Well, the Democrats punted, and it was somewhat embarrassing. As Talking Points Memo's Christina Bellantoni and Brian Beutler reported, though, they had a really awesome reason: "We have a winning message now, why muddy it up with a failed vote, because, of course, Republicans are going to block everything,” the [senior Senate Democratic] aide said."

And as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported on Sept. 24, 2010, while the "most politically savvy [Democratic] Senators" were "urg[ing] colleagues to go for it," there was another anonymous Senate aide (maybe the same one?) who offered the same unimpeachably well-thought-through explanation as to why punting on first down was the shrewd political play:

According to a very plugged in Senate aide, Senators debating the issue were very aware that the polling was on their side. Yet, paradoxically, this ended up tipping the balance against holding the vote. Senate Dems felt they were alreadly winning on the issue, and in the end they thought a vote risked upsetting a dynamic that was already playing in their favor.

"People felt like, Why rock the boat on a good situation?" the aide tells me. "People weren't sure how how having a vote would effect that dynamic. We would have lost Democrats on certain aspects of the vote. Who knows if the media would cover that as Democrats being splintered? In a way the good polling gave people faith that we dont need to do anything on the issue because we're already winning."

Ha, yes! Why muddy the waters with a vote that was destined to fail because of GOP obstruction? Why boldly take an affirmative stance on an issue when all your pollsters and consultants say you have the "message war" in the bag?

By the way, I think it's pretty safe to assume that the media will always cover the failure of "certain aspects of the vote" to earn the support of some Democrats as a big "Democrats in disarray" story because a) the media loves a good "Democrats in disarray" story and b) when you avoid taking stands on platform issues because you don't have your caucus in perfect lockstep, then you authentically are in disarray.

The point, though, is that the Democrats came to the conclusion that they were totally "already winning" -- winning everything but, you know, the actual 2010 midterm elections.

This time around, however, it's possible that support for the president's proposal will hold a little firmer. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who had previously supported the million dollar barrier, has "grudgingly" signed on with Obama's plan. He adds his support to that of the more enthusiastic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who's in a tough reelection fight of his own. As Brown told Sargent on Tuesday, "The American public thinks that if you make a quarter million dollars, you're doing really well. There's no reason we shouldn't be shouting this from the rooftops."

(Sargent also reported that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has aggressively jumped into the fight, with an ad attacking GOP candidate Rick Berg "for favoring tax breaks for millionaires." The only problem? Berg is running against the aforementioned Heidi Heitkamp in the North Dakota Senate race, who ... also favors the million dollar barrier.)

The New Republic's Jonathan Chait called the Democrats' decision to punt on the tax cut vote in 2010 "sheer political suicide." Compared to that insane period of Democratic Party politickery, the current level of skittishness doesn't seem strong enough to once again push Dems out on the ledge -- at least not yet!

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