Self-Conscious Republicans Panic Over Payroll Tax Spat

Self-Conscious Republicans Panic Over Payroll Tax Spat; Romney Wriggles on Iraq

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing Still Beats Plain Old Nothing For Political Press

"... President Obama seemed to regain his political footing this week with the help of House Republicans, whose handling of a standoff over payroll taxes had even leading conservatives accusing them of bungling the politically charged issue. "

-- Lede of the New York Times story on the payroll tax standoff in Washington.

Anyone who really believes that the spat over how to extend the current payroll tax holiday will amount to a hill of beans in the 2012 election needs to stop spiking their eggnog.

Both houses of Congress have passed bills extending the current 2 percent reduction to the 6.2 percent of their salaries American workers previously paid in a tax originally designed to fund Social Security and Medicare.

Right now, President Obama is making some pre-Christmas sport out of the fact that House Republicans, with the expiration of the tax holiday only nine days away, want the holiday extended for a full year while the Senate has passed a two-month, stopgap extension.

The chances seem remote that that there would not be an extension of the tax holiday and the spending for unemployment benefits and forestalling, for a 17th year, scheduled cuts to the rates doctors are paid under Medicare.

There is active legislation that can be quickly moved and more than a week in which to move it. Republicans have conceded the central issues: the holiday will go on, as will the entitlement spending. The only real debate is how to pay for it. Democrats, led by Obama, are angling for a tax hike on rich folks while Republicans want to pay for it with spending cuts. The 12-month versus two-month debate is a manifestation of that larger conflict.

As with the government shutdown battles of the spring, Democrats are willing to accede to short-term cuts to keep delaying the final resolution in order to prevent the bigger cuts or entitlement changes that would come with a full-year program. Republicans want to avoid this nickel and diming and get a full-year deal. Neither are GOPers happy about the thought of being in this same spot again come February.

But, to paraphrase an old joke, we've already established what this is. Now we're just talking about price.

The political moment for Republicans, however, is different than in the spring. Republicans then were feeling exultant, fresh from historic midterm victories and with President Obama's job approval skidding downward amid fears of a double-dip recession and general unhappiness with his economic policies.

Now, Republicans are feeling very self-conscious about their potential presidential nominees. GOPers have, in large part, come to agree with the establishment media narrative that their contenders are all a bunch of jamokes who can't possibly contend with Obama, slayer of bin Laden, enemy of the 1 percent.

Democrats are feeling better because Obama's numbers have been on the upswing for the past couple of weeks. Twenty days ago, Obama's Real Clear Politics job approval rating was -8.2. Today it is -2.1.

Democrats attribute this 6-point swing to the president's message about demanding tax increases for top earners and Republican intransigence are starting to sink in. And Republicans, already feeling blue because their nomination process looks messy and may prove unsatisfying, are coming to agree with them.

Accordingly, many Republicans have decided to join with the president and the press in lambasting House Republicans and laying the blame for Obama's resurrection at their feet.

But the poll rise could be more attributable to improving sentiments on the economy, December Christmas cheer, liberal happiness with the withdrawal from Iraq and certainly is owed to some combination thereof. The political situation, however, is not materially different now than it was when Obama undertook his autumn campaign swing with a Labor Day speech and address to a joint session of Congress.

Obama's approval rating in the Gallup poll out today is the same as it was on Oct. 1 – 43 percent.

Political journalists and many Republicans who seek to be seen as wise in their eyes are acting as if somehow undecided independent voters in Iowa and Ohio were, three days before Christmas, tracking the negotiating stunts and posturing of Washington politicians who are always performing stunts and posturing.

Obama today will talk about the issue again as if Republicans are opposing the extension of the tax holiday and the extension of entitlement and welfare spending. And a clutch of nervous Republicans will reinforce his telling of it by promptly taking to the airwaves to say that House Republicans should cave in, immediately.

But please recall that Republicans have already "caved in," by voting for the extensions. They are now quibbling with the Senate over details.

The explanation for this friendly fire is that House Republicans have lost the "messaging" battle, suggesting that there was some press release or white paper that Republicans could have issued that would have prevented The New York Times headline today of: "Obama Gets a Lift From Tax Battle With Republicans." Power Play could have written that headline for the NYT three weeks in advance.

Obama is happy to score points, with the help of the press and self-conscious GOPers, on Republicans ahead of the Christmas holiday. Whether next week Republicans cave in further and accept a two-month extension or whether the Senate agrees to lengthen its version of the House-passed plan seems to be a matter of no lasting political consequence.

We won't know until next week when we discover if the House gives the Senate its way or if Majority Leader Harry Reid is forced to the negotiating table.

But with nothing else to talk about in Washington and overtired and crabby reporters and politicians in need of a Christmas break, the story has taken on the magnitude of the debt ceiling debate.

On second thought, Power Play retracts the suggestion that folks stop spiking their eggnog. Make it a double and relax.

Romney Has More Explaining to Do on Iraq

"It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now."

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the Jan. 24, 2008, NBC News/St. Petersburg Times presidential debate.

"We took action which was appropriate at the time. Lessons learned along the way, you know, I think our military would say a lot of lessons learned. We probably should have gone in with a heavier footprint."

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on the Dec. 18, 2011, edition of "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."

"Well, if we knew at the time of our entry into Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction -- if somehow we had been given that information, why, obviously we would not have gone in."

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Wednesday on MSNBC.

There isn't any real contradiction between what Mitt Romney told MSNBC about the Iraq war on Wednesday and what he told Chris Wallace about the conflict on Sunday.

Wallace asked whether the U.S. "should" have invaded in 2003 while MSNBC anchor Chuck Todd asked whether the U.S. "would" have invaded if leaders knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

It's a bit of a straddle, but not inconsistent. Neither is it inconsistent with the telling of Bush administration officials who say that without the threat of weapons of mass destruction, there would have been no war. And Romney has repeatedly said that he has read George W. Bush's book "Decision Points."

But the big question for Romney isn't about the subtle shading of the answer from Sunday to Wednesday of this week, but what changed from four years ago when Romney, under pressure from opponents John McCain and Mike Huckabee, gave throaty support for the conflict. The facts have not materially changed but Romney's view, evidently, has.

On Sunday he was hedging. On Wednesday it was a full flip.

Romney, still on a media blitz aimed at smothering Newt Gingrich, will have multiple chances to explain his change of heart.

With fresh sectarian violence rocking Iraq, the potential unraveling of the Iranian-backed, Shia-led government and fresh concerns about the re-emergence of al Qaeda, Romney will be able to focus on his disagreement with President Obama's Iraq policy. But for a candidate whose multiple policy evolutions have been a consistent problem for Republican voters, he will still have to explain his new stance.

And Now, A Word From Charles

"And the answer I think is not cutting off aid [to Saudi Arabia], because in the end that is not going to have any influence on Saudis. We are in hock and dependent to the Saudis because of our dependence on oil. The answer, and it's a long run answer, but it's the only answer, is energy independence.

"We have to drill everywhere, offshore, in the Arctic. We have to do the fracking we are doing inside the United States to get shale oil and gas, Keystone pipeline, every available resource. And we are the Saudi Arabia mainly of these energy sources. We are not exploiting them. Only when we have independence will we be able to exert any influence on Saudis. Until then, we have none."

-- Charles Krauthammer on "Special Report with Bret Baier."