In recent American politics, every major shift in political momentum has resulted from an iconic battle.
In 1995 the tide of the 1994 "Republican Revolution" was reversed when Speaker Newt Gingrich and his new Republican House majority shut down the government in a battle over their attempts to cut Medicare to give tax breaks to the rich (sound familiar?). The shutdown ended with -- what pundits universally scored -- as a victory for President Clinton. That legislative victory began Clinton's march to overwhelming re-election victory in 1996.
In 2010, Democrats passed President Obama's landmark health care reform. But they lost the battle for public opinion -- and base motivation. That turned the political tide that had propelled President Obama to victory in 2008 and ultimately led to the drubbing Democrats took in the 2010 midterms.
The Republican leadership's collapse in the battle over extending the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits could also be a turning point moment that shifts the political momentum just as we enter the pivotal 2012 election year.
1) Since the president launched his campaign for the American Jobs Act, he has driven Congressional Republicans into a political box canyon with very few avenues of escape. The jobs campaign has made it clearer and clearer to the voters that the "do nothing Republican Congress" bears responsibility for preventing the President from taking steps that would create jobs.
Until the payroll tax/unemployment victory, the president had failed to persuade the Republican dominated Congress to pass any provision of the bill -- save one aimed at helping veterans. But the polling shows that the public has become more and more disgusted by Congressional intransigence. Since 64% of Americans believe that Congress is run entirely by the Republicans (and from the stand point of stopping legislation it is managed entirely by Republicans), the overall unhappiness with Congress has translated into distain for the "do nothing Republican Congress."
Congress now has lower approval ratings (11% in the latest poll) than at any time in modern history. Senator Michael Bennett presented data on the Senate floor that showed that Congress is less popular than BP during the gulf oil spill. It is way less popular than Nixon during Watergate. About the same number of Americans have a positive view of Congress as support America becoming a Communist nation. That makes it the worst time imaginable for House Republicans to throw a political tantrum that threatened to increase the tax burden of everyday Americans by $40 per paycheck -- $1,000 next year -- right after Christmas.
Last weekend, the Senate Republican Leader thought he had blazed a path for Republicans that led out of that political box canyon -- at least in so far as the extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment. The bipartisan agreement to temporarily extend the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance seemed to give Republicans a face saving option that -- at least temporarily -- took them off the political hook. But Tea Party stalwarts in the House threatened to mutiny if Boehner went along -- and all week -- there the House Republicans sat, at the bottom of that canyon with no escape.
House Republicans bet that the president and Democrats were desperate enough to extend the payroll tax and unemployment that they could hold those provisions hostage the way they had held hostage the debt ceiling in August. In an act of unfathomable political ineptitude, they failed to appreciate that this time, Democrats occupied vastly higher political ground.
Failure to continue the payroll tax holiday would have immediately decreased the take home pay of 160 million Americans. By refusing to agree to the compromise that had passed the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, House Republicans made it certain that they would have been held responsible.
They might as well have hung out a huge flashing sign in Times Square that said: "Republicans are responsible for cutting your take home pay and eliminating your unemployment benefits."
Even the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal called on them to throw in the towel.
Democrats had every incentive to hang tough. In the end by refusing to take the escape hatch opened for them by McConnell, the nation watched House Republicans dragged kicking and screaming to support the president's popular payroll and unemployment extensions.
The outcome of the battle was unambiguous. No one could doubt who stood up for the economic interests of the middle class and who did not. And no one could doubt who won and who lost.
National Journal reported that, "House Republicans on Thursday crumpled under the weight of White House and public pressure and have agreed to pass a two-month extension of the two percent payroll-tax cut, Republican and Democratic sources told National Journal."
In the end, Republican intransigence transformed a moment that would have been a modest win for President Obama into an iconic victory.
2) Strength and victory are enormous political assets. Going into the New Year, they now belong to the president and the Democrats.
One of the reasons why the debt ceiling battle inflicted political damage on President Obama is that it made him appear ineffectual -- a powerful figure who had been ensnared and held hostage by the Lilliputian pettiness of hundreds of swarming Tea Party ideological zealots.
In the last few months -- as he campaigned for the American Jobs Act -- he has shaken free of those bonds. Now voters have just watched James Bond or Indiana Jones escape and turn the tables on his adversary.
Great stories are about a protagonist who meets and overcomes a challenge and is victorious. The capitulation of the House Tea Party Republicans is so important because it feels like the beginning of that kind of heroic narrative.
Even today most Americans believe that George Bush and the big Wall Street banks -- not by President Obama -- caused the economic crisis. Swing voters have never lost their fondness for the President and don't doubt his sincerity. But they had begun to doubt his effectiveness. They have had increasing doubts that Obama was up to the challenge of leading them back to economic prosperity.
The narrative set in motion by the events of the last several weeks could be a turning point in voter perception. It could well begin to convince skeptical voters that Obama is precisely the kind of leader they thought he was back in 2008 -- a guy with the ability to lead them out of adversity -- a leader with the strength, patience, skill, will and resoluteness to lead them to victory.
That now contrasts with the sheer political incompetence of the House Republican leadership that allowed themselves to be cornered and now find themselves in political disarray. And it certainly contrasts with the political circus we have been watching in the Republican Presidential primary campaign.
3) This victory will inspire the dispirited Democratic base.
Inspiration is the feeling of empowerment -- the feeling that you are part of something larger than yourself and can personally play a significant role in achieving that goal. It comes from feeling that together you can overcome challenges and win.
Nothing will do more to inspire committed Democrats than the sight of their leader -- President Obama -- out-maneuvering the House Republicans and forcing them into complete capitulation.
The events of the last several weeks will send a jolt of electricity through the progressive community.
The right is counting on progressives to be demoralized and dispirited in the coming election. The president's victory on the payroll tax and unemployment will make it ever more likely that they will be wrong.
4) When you have them on the run, that's the time to chase them.
The most important thing about the outcome of the battle over the payroll tax and unemployment is that it shifts the political momentum at a critical time. Momentum is an independent variable in any competitive activity -- including politics.
In a football or basketball game you can feel the momentum shift. The tide of battle is all about momentum. The same is true in politics. And in politics it is even more important because the "spectators" are also the players -- the voters.
People follow -- and vote -- for winners. The bandwagon effect is enormously important in political decision-making. Human beings like to travel in packs. They like to be at the center of the mainstream. Momentum shifts affect their perceptions of the mainstream.
For the last two years, the right wing has been on the offensive. Its Tea Party shock troops took the battle to Democratic members of Congress. In the mid-terms Democrats were routed in district after district.
Now the tide has turned. And when the tide turns -- when you have them on the run -- that's the time to chase them.
We won't know for sure until next November whether this moment will take on the same iconic importance as Clinton's battle with Gingrich in 1995. But there is no doubt that the political wind has shifted. It's up to progressives to make the most of it.