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The tax-cut president

Now that President Obama has signed the economic stimulus package, let us highlight an interesting fact that has been largely underplayed in the news coverage:

A Democratic chief executive has signed into law the largest two-year federal tax cut in history...yet virtually the entire Republican caucus on Capitol Hill voted against it.

To repeat: A liberal Democrat has signed into law a bill mandating $282 billion in tax cuts over the next two years - dwarfing George W. Bush's $174 billion in tax cuts during his first two years - yet the party that typically invokes "tax cuts" as its ideological mantra decided to vote No. There are 219 Republicans in the House and Senate; 216 voted against a tax cut that's bigger than the Bush cut.

Republicans have been busy lately spiking the ball in the end zone, and posting triumphalist videos about their alleged comeback (to the tune of Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle," although Aerosmith told them yesterday to knock it off). Their behavior has been fascinating, given the fact that the voters have treated them as roadkill in two straight elections, and that their persistent attacks on the stimulus package have netted them zilch in the national polls. In Orwellian fashion, they have somehow convinced themselves - or, rather, the conservative base to which they are beholden has convinced itself - that defeat is victory, that reflexive opposition is tantamount to wisdom.

Indeed, they're so proud of saying No that they seem not to recognize the inherent political risks. Which brings us to this massive tax cut:

Do they not recognize how badly they have been rolled, how the Democrats may well have swiped one of their signature issues?

Thinking ahead to the 2010 and 2012 elections, the political-messaging shorthand goes like this: Obama in his campaign promised a huge tax cut for the American people. Within weeks of his inauguration, Obama and the Democrats delivered a huge tax cut for the American people. And virtually all the Republicans voted against it.

Democratic congressmen in swing districts can use that argument to defend themselves; more importantly, Democratic challengers in swing districts can use that argument against vulnerable Republican incumbents, pointing to the record. And Obama, in a re-election campaign, can use that argument to remind voters that his party delivered the big tax cut with no help from the other side.

Yeah, I know the counter-arguments. Republicans no doubt would argue that the big tax cut was subsumed by all the big expenditures, and so therefore it was not really a tax cut worthy of support. They'd argue that they stood tall and refused to be hoodwinked by a massive socialist spending package that burdens our children and our children's children and all children beyond. (They'll overlook the fact that the stimulus bill was backed by the eminently capitalist U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers.) But the big flaw in this likely GOP argument is obvious: the minority party - by spending so lavishly and spreading so much red ink on the federal ledger during the Bush era, thereby burdening future generations - has forfeited its image as the party of fiscal prudence.

In politics, you never want to be playing defense. A Republican who has to explain why he or she voted No on a big tax cut is playing defense. Worse yet for the GOP, this tax cut has been heavily targeted to working and middle class families (just as Obama promised in '08) - unlike the Bush tax cuts, which were skewed toward the more affluent. According to the exit polls last November, Obama easily outperformed John McCain among voters earning between $30,000 and $75,000. It's hard to see how the Democrats will lose ground among those workers in 2010 by arguing that they delivered a promised, targeted tax cut - and that the Republicans voted against it.

The Republicans appear to be boxed in, to the point where they have to pin their dreams of a comeback on the prospect of greater misery for more Americans. In fact, if Obama's recovery efforts start to pay off down the road, they won't even be able to argue that it's the good ole Republican-style tax cut which is really fueling the recovery...because they did nothing to make the tax cut happen.

Do the Republicans recognize this predicament? Probably not. As usual these days, they appear to be flying on auto-pilot, way too close to the ground.