It finally comes down to this.
We should be thankful. After all the compromises, the centrism, the hippie-punching, the retention of Alan Simpson, the mixed messaging on DADT, and the systematic throwing of progressives under most every wheel of the bus imaginable, at least on this we have a line in the sand: President Obama will not actively work to impose a continued tax cut for those making over $250,000 a year.
It is excellent news, but it feels far less like triumph than a sense of relief for those who since the days of Howard Dean have challenged the beltway consensus among "serious journalists" that progressivism was the enemy of electoral victory: a sense that finally, just maybe, President Obama and many Democrats are coming to realize that there is nothing more to gain from this type of concession.
On this issue, it seems like a no-brainer: A majority of the public supports letting the tax cuts for the wealthy expire, and its extremely unlikely that any significant portion of the 36 percent who for some reason oppose this policy was inclined to vote for Democrats anyway. And even if there were some small segment of the electorate out there that were inclined to vote for Democrats but might now choose not to because of Obama's refusal to extend these budget-busting cuts, it would almost certainly be overwhelmed by the number of people who would be that much more likely to vote for Democrats out of a prevailing frustration with their own economic situation, as well as a desire for vengeance against the masters of the economic universe that are mostly responsible for creating this situation in the first place.
But while we can applaud a decision that is not only good policy, but seems to be even better politics, it behooves us to ask one question: would this same decision have been made if this were September 2009, as opposed to September 2010? Or did it take hitting absolute rock bottom from an electoral perspective for the political honchos in the administration and the party to decide that they had nothing to lose by going for broke?
The Democrats will end up taking losses in the upcoming midterms, especially in the House. This was always to be expected from a structural point of view, given the fact that the president's party historically loses midterm seats, and given the overwhelming Democratic advantage that had resulted from many years of conservative malfeasance combined with the wave inspired by the Obama electorate. The end result was a narrow and eagerly awaited two-year legislative window with which to bring as much reform to the country as possible before those majorities were weakened somewhat in the midterms to follow.
Those factors were anticipated. What was unanticipated--at least by some--was the conspiracy-minded zealous insanity of the conservative base, as well as the utter unwillingness of Republican politicians to compromise in any way for the good of the country. The Democratic response--outside of an utter sense of disbelief at just how radical the right had become--was to try to protect its most vulnerable members against accusations of being too far left by avoiding a push for transformational policies that would have provided a tangible sense of accomplishment and motivation for the Democratic base. If the goal was indeed to convince the conservative-leaning voters in swing districts that the Democrats were not in fact socialist Muslim Marxist fascist Stalinist homosexual terrorist sympathizers, it didn't work. The conservative base was just as motivated, while the Democratic base felt that they had absolutely nothing to vote for. The end result? A massive enthusiasm gap, and the largest generic Congressional ballot difference in the history of the Gallup Poll.
Now, there's nothing left to lose. It's impossible to say whether things would have been this bad if Democrats had gotten a public option, or secured stronger financial sector reform, or pushed much harder for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell--but one thing is for sure: things simply couldn't have been any worse than they are right now.
For the remainder of the election season, it will be incumbent on President Obama and the Democrats in Congress to advance as many progressive, base-motivating policies as possible, such as a firm line on tax cuts for the wealthy and the nomination of Elizabeth Warren. There's nothing left to lose, after all. And if it stems the tide and staunches the bleeding, it will be incumbent upon the "professional left" to push the narrative that maybe, just maybe, that's the foot we should have started off on.