Welcome to governing

    Some aspects of politics are universal. The players always change, but the same conflicts – insiders versus outsiders, principle versus pragmatism, campaigning versus governing – tend to play out time and again. We’re seeing this dynamic right now in the Republican camp, where the various White House aspirants are weighing in on the imperfect tax-cut deal forged by President Obama and congressional GOP leaders.To behold this dynamic in action, just take a look at how Mitt Romney and John Thune are jockeying for position.Romney, burdened by his establishment pedigree, blue-state gubernatorial past, and chameleonic reputation, is viewed with suspicion by many of the grassroots conservatives who will dominate the early ’12 primaries. If he can’t win them over, he is toast for the second time. So Mitt’s top priority is to morph into a conservative firebrand, an enemy of the Republican establishment, an ideological warrior who equates compromise with surrender. Hence his USA Today column this week, where he denounces the tax-cut compromise (and, by implication, the Republican establishment leaders who agreed to it) as a betrayal of conservative values. Even though the deal extends the Bush tax cuts for another few years, Romney said that the insiders gave away too much, because the deal fails to cut spending and lower the budget deficit. Kill the deal, he says, and start over in January when “the new, more conservative Congress should reach a better solution.”Maybe Romney really believes all this, or maybe it’s pure recalibration. Who knows? The point is, he’s clearly aiming to pluck the chords that will resonate as music in the tea-party camp. Most Americans actually support the compromise – in the new bipartisan Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, 59 percent say yes, while 36 percent say no – but right now Romney can ill afford to position himself in the center. Rather, he needs to pander to the base; the same poll reports that 50 percent of self-described conservatives want Republicans to hew to their convictions at the expense of compromise, while 44 percent favor the reverse.But South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a potential presidential hopeful in part because he’d be a new face in a field of the usual suspects, did a number on Romney the other day. During his Senate floor remarks, Thune didn’t mention Romney by name and naturally insisted yesterday that he wasn’t even referring to Romney (“I didn’t take shots at anybody”), but you be the judge. Thune argued that, although the compromise forged by his colleagues is imperfect, the bottom line is that the absence of a deal would mean the end of the Bush tax cuts and therefore a tax hike for all in January. Therefore, in his words: “It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and criticize this proposal. And it’s perhaps even politically expedient to stand on the sidelines and criticize this proposal.”There’s the universal conflict: Thune is the Washington insider, defending the pragmatic deal as the best possible half a loaf; Romney is trying to be the outsider, aiming his pitchfork at Washington. Although Romney is not alone, of course. Sarah Palin has been busy as well, working the same tea-party turf. She did a tweet on the tax-cut compromise the other day: “Obviously Obama is so very, very wrong on the economy & spins GOP tax cut goals;so fiscal conservatives: we expect you to fight for us &……America’s solvency.”I’ve seen bathroom wall graffiti that makes more sense than that. Is she saying that extension of the Bush tax cuts is very, very wrong? Or that Obama is very, very wrong for agreeing to put more money into people’s pockets in order to stimulate the economy? Or that Republicans are very, very wrong to cut a deal in which Obama agrees to adopt some of their policy convictions? Whatever. She’s probably giving us the crayon version of what Romney said in his USA Today column. It’s worth noting that, in the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, Obama tops Palin in a ’12 matchup by 22 percentage points. I think we know the reason.Anyway, most of the potential Republican candidates, bucking the complaints of Rush Limbaugh and others in the right-wing punditocracy, are defending the deal as the best governing option. This list includes Mike Huckabee (“the best anyone can hope for at this point”), Newt Gingrich (“good for the country”), and Tim Pawlenty (“It’s not the package I would have negotiated, but overall we need to make sure those taxes don’t go up”). Rick Santorum, who badly needs to bond with grassroots conservatives if he hopes to have a prayer, is sort of on this list, but sort of not. You decide. Here’s what he said on Fox Business Network the other night:”It’s a 51-49 (issue) for me. I’m not going to criticize anyone who votes for it. I would probably vote against it. I think there’s enough here that we should be able to stand up and say, given the last election, this is not good enough.”These age-old conflicts, pitting pragmatics against principle, will be sharpened in the new year, when the House Republicans come off the sidelines and take a share of responsibility. Speaker John Boehner will have to deal with an expanded and more right-tilting caucus; many of those new members will be determined to oppose any new deal-making with Obama – in part because, in their view, compromise is akin to surrender, and in part because the guy across the table is Obama. Yet the polls indicate that voters in the middle want bipartisan compromise.Memo to the GOP: Welcome to governing.

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