A Game of Chicken That Democrats Can Finally Win

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 12:05 PM EST

House Republicans are holding President Obama's payroll tax cut hostage and are getting hammered for it. What makes them think this is a winning strategy? Dave Weigel puts it like this:

Democrats want to re-elect the president, so they’ll ultimately give up a lot to extend a tax cut and unemployment benefits....Despite how it looks right now, it doesn’t make sense to doubt them. After all, they’ve had a lot of practice at this.

National Journal's Ben Terris is even blunter:

The House, influenced by a new mentality ushered in after the 2010 wave elections, stood its ground on issues like spending and the debt ceiling all year, watching as Democrats conceded time and again. But, depending on how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Obama act now, their intransigence on extending tax breaks for the middle class could either be another feather in their cap, or a failure for the Republican Party. Either way, the freshman class doesn’t see a downside.

There's no question that a stalemate is dangerous for Democrats. For starters, it would hurt the economy, and in an election year that hurts the president no matter whose fault it is. What's more, voters tend to blame presidents for gridlock whether it's their fault or not. After all, once Republicans make a counterproposal (and they have: a conference committee to work out a one-year deal before the end of the year), they can plausibly argue that it's the other side that's not willing to deal. Both sides are keenly aware of both of these dynamics, and they definitely point in the direction of Democrats caving yet again.

But that's exactly why I suspect Democrats won't cave. At some point, whether it's strictly rational or not, you simply have to let the other side know that you can't be pushed around forever. And this is about the best chance Dems have had to send this message in a while. Nothing is going to get shut down if they hold out, the nation's credit won't be wrecked, and even if takes until January to make a deal it won't have much effect on the economy. What's more, House Republicans have shown weakness by making sure the Senate's two-month deal is still on the table. If they'd voted it down, it would have been like ripping the steering wheel off the car, but they carefully made sure not to do this. And to make things even worse for Republicans, they're plainly losing the PR battle over this. Even the Wall Street Journal isn't on their side, and even Mitch McConnell is pretty disgusted over being double-crossed once again by the lunatics in the House GOP caucus.

So: no huge consequences for holding out; weakness and panic on the Republican side; and public (and press) opinion very clearly on the Democratic side for the first time in a while. This is the best chance Democrats have had all year to stand firm and actually profit from it. That's why I think they will.