Gwen’s Take: In Case You Were Wondering, We Have Been Here Before

BY Gwen Ifill  December 23, 2011 at 8:40 AM EDT

“Politics is politics” House Speaker John Boehner opined Thursday, as he stepped before the cameras to explain why he would not back down in the payroll tax fight House Republicans have been waging with the Senate.

Seldom have truer words been spoken. And it was politics at work when — even as Boehner was speaking — his counterpart on the other side of the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, was busy bailing water out of the boat.

Republicans from Karl Rove to John McCain had been busy hopping off the Boehner ferry for days, and by the end of the day Thursday, Boehner had clearly caved to the pressure.

The end had been coming for days. The Senate had already left town for the holidays, and showed no sign of returning. So McConnell suggested Boehner back away from the plank, agree to a two-month tax cut extension, and accept a Senate-brokered compromise. In the end, Boehner had little choice but to leap into the sea.

(If all these seafaring metaphors force you to imagine Nancy Pelosi with a pirate’s patch over one eye, so be it.)

Even as the standoff worked itself out, it became clear the key split was not between Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, the two-month extension deal the Senate approved was a strikingly bipartisan one. It is the intra-partisan disagreement among Republicans themselves that has been on unusually transparent display.

Boehner and McConnell are both old political hands who know the ways of Washington, including when it helps to compromise. But Boehner has the far tougher job. He not only leads a majority chamber, but he also has a feisty and stubborn caucus of Tea Party conservatives who constantly set lit matches under his chair.

“Over the last 24 hours, I’ve been asked the question: What are you fighting for?” freshman Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) said as he stood next to Boehner Thursday. “We’re fighting to change the way Washington operates.”

That’s a tall order that can sound really good at times like these. But the polls are not backing him up – at least not right now.

What public opinion surveys suggest is widespread disgust at the fight itself. President Obama knew that when he stepped before the cameras for the third time in three days this week. This time, he was surrounded not by other politicians – as Boehner had been – but by ordinary-looking citizens.

“This is an issue where an overwhelming number of people in both parties agree,” he said. “How can we not get that done? I mean, has this place become so dysfunctional that even when people agree to things we can’t do it?”

The intra-party GOP divide also creates problems for Republican presidential candidates – especially as they ratchet up campaign trail attacks on one another.

The horse-race polls, with their ever-shifting news about who is ahead or falling back, are mildly interesting.

By the latest mid-December measures, Ron Paul should be suiting up for a triumphant nominating convention. He appears to be trending upward in Iowa.

But dig beyond the horse race, and this week’s CNN/ORC national poll finds that Paul is also leading among Republicans who say they would not consider supporting him under any circumstances.

Plus, a whopping 56-percent of those picking a candidate tell pollsters they might still change their minds.

This kind of uncertainty – coupled with a desire to place a pox on Washington for the foreseeable future – frustrates every Republican I know. And it makes the Obama campaign smile.


Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.