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Hotline's Latest Edition / POLITICS

The Political Earthquake

President Obama shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and others look on after the president signed his tax compromise into law(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

photo of Josh Kraushaar
December 21, 2010

This past week was one that was made for this column’s “Against the Grain” title. Rarely do you see conventional wisdom turned on its head in a matter of days, but it happened in record time thanks to an unanticipated flurry of activity in the Capitol before recess.

It was only several weeks ago when pundits and politicians alike were lamenting the state of gridlock in Washington, a town they said had become ungovernable. Yet Congress just completed one of the most productive lame-duck sessions in years, passing a genuinely bipartisan tax compromise with the support of 139 House Democrats and 138 House Republicans, as well as historic legislation allowing gays to openly serve in the military with a comfortable 65 votes in the Senate.

The political implications of both are significant, for the White House and for several leading senators whose political legacies changed overnight.


Obama Righting the Ship

President Obama, at his lowest ebb, planted the seeds of revival in 2012 with these twin policy victories. In one fell swoop, he managed to triangulate on taxes while achieving historic legislation that is of immense importance to his base.

But the tax compromise that Obama won, while helping him politically, also made a mockery of the spin that he had wanted to govern in a bipartisan manner at the beginning of his term and Republicans were mindlessly obstructing him for political gain. When the opportunity arose to strike a tax deal that was a true compromise, Republicans ran to the bargaining table, rather than wait until the next Congress, when they will have much more clout.

If Obama genuinely wanted to work in a bipartisan manner on the stimulus and health care legislation, the opportunity was there for him to live up to his campaign rhetoric in 2009. But he saw huge majorities in both houses of Congress and the unique chance to pass consequential liberal legislation that ordinarily wouldn’t pass muster on the Hill.

He’s now suffering the political consequences of catering to his inner liberal, but, like former President Clinton, may have paved the path to redemption.

Many economists are already predicting that the tax compromise will stimulate the economy enough to reduce unemployment below 9 percent by the time Obama will be seeking reelection in 2012. If the economy bounces back in two years, he will receive all of the credit (presidents always are credited or blamed for the economy, not Congress). The downside of that truism: If the economy continues to stagnate, the bill could well become an albatross to Obama—not unlike some other bipartisan political busts, like TARP and the Iraq war authorization.

But this is his best chance to get the economy moving again. And if he continues to pivot to the center, he will pull a Clinton faster than even the grand master himself.

If the economic compromise of 2010 helped improve Obama’s standing with independents, the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell is an even better Christmas gift for the White House—one that cements his standing with the Democratic base and also delivers on one of his campaign promises. It’s a historic civil-rights bill that will be remembered for generations to come.

That’s all the more impressive given that it was left for dead barely more than a week ago, when it was attached as part of a larger Defense authorization package. But thanks to the efforts of Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., among others, it comfortably passed with bipartisan support as a stand-alone bill.

Lieberman’s persistent advocacy for the bill, both publicly and behind the scenes, played a major role in its passage. And he looks to have revived his political prospects for 2012, which looked very dim just weeks ago.

Lieberman: The New Comeback Kid?

Will a liberal like Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., want to give up his rising career in the House to challenge Lieberman in a Democratic primary when the senator can now point to his leadership on an issue dear to the Democratic base? And how can Lieberman’s hawkishness on foreign policy annoy liberals as much it did in 2006, after Obama has increased the troop levels in Afghanistan and embraced many elements of President Bush’s counterterrorism policies himself? The risk-reward ratio just got much higher for any Democratic challenger to Lieberman, suddenly putting him in credible position to get reelected.

Lieberman’s Northeastern neighbor, Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., continues to showcase his savvy political instincts on don’t ask, don’t tell. He was one of the first Republicans to support repeal of the policy, continuing to position himself as a socially moderate centrist who can find common cause with Democrats on some high-profile issues. Meanwhile, he has adroitly maintained a fiscally conservative profile—coming out against earmarks and supporting the tax compromise.

For a Republican in Massachusetts, Brown is in surprisingly solid shape for reelection, even as he anticipates a serious challenge. In a sign of how mainstream Brown’s image is, a new Public Policy Polling survey found that 53 percent of Massachusetts voters found his views “about right”—including 35 percent of Democrats. Brown’s backing of the DADT repeal will only serve to improve those numbers.

Looking further down the road, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., took a big step toward solidifying his centrist credentials in the Senate by voting for repeal. He’s not up for reelection until 2016; but if this vote is any indication, he will continue to act like the fiscally conservative, socially moderate member of Congress that he did to great success in the House.

Manchin, Lugar: Looking Lame

Several senators suffered a hit to their political prospects over their votes in the lame-duck session. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., went AWOL, skipping last Saturday’s votes in order to attend a Christmas party back home. Hardly a profile in courage: If he’d shown up to vote against the bills, he’d be in fine political shape—even if he wouldn’t be the most popular senator among his Democratic colleagues. But now we will be hearing GOP attacks of “No-Show Joe” during his reelection campaign in 2012.

And Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., continues to mystify, taking two votes that showed little concern for his reelection. He voted for the Dream Act, which had little chance of passing, in a state where sentiment against illegal immigration is high and the Hispanic vote total is low. (In 2006, Indiana’s three freshman Democrats won running on a hard-line positioning against illegal immigration.) But he voted against the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell,” which looks to have broader support even in a Republican-leaning state. Lugar is likely to face a serious primary threat, and looks like the second-most endangered Republican up for reelection (behind Nevada’s Sen. John Ensign).

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, didn’t help his cause either by missing the weekend’s votes to attend a grandson’s graduation—even though he was an original cosponsor of the Dream Act. Hatch faces the likelihood of being challenged for the nomination by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Running away from his record doesn’t appear to be a ticket to winning in a state where party activists hold great sway.

All in all, this was one of the most consequential weeks in Washington since the passage of health care reform—and one with major political ramifications. Obama paved the path to a comeback, Lieberman looks like he resuscitated his reelection hopes, and Brown continues to defy the odds, while at least three senators may have caused serious damage to their political futures. Not bad for just a weekend’s work.


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