STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: Democrats have been campaigning for years on what they thought was a popular position, permanently extending the middle-class tax cuts and letting the cuts for over $250,000 of income expire. But as the president said yesterday, that position cannot prevail. Without a willingness to give on both sides, he said, the stalemate would continue into next year and all Americans would see their taxes go up. So...
INSKEEP: We've got to make sure that we're coming up with a solution, even if it's not a hundred percent of what I want or what the Republicans want.
LIASSON: But many Democrats felt the president gave up too much and gave in too fast. Senate majority leader Harry Reid was noncommittal. Independent Bernie Sanders said he would filibuster and a group of progressive Democrats in the House circulated a letter in opposition. Grassroots progressives like Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee called the deal a capitulation.
LIASSON: Everything President Obama has done has signaled weakness and has sent a signal to Republicans that if they block tax cuts long enough, at the end of the day, he will pass whatever comes across his desk. That is not how you negotiate.
LIASSON: Of course the Democratic leadership in Congress also chose not to have a vote on the tax cuts before the election. The main problem, according to Green, is that Democrats run from their own shadow whenever taxes are mentioned, even if...
LIASSON: They're fighting for 98 percent of the American people and Republicans are clearly standing up for only the wealthiest two percent. That is an eminently winnable fight, so they shouldn't have put it off until after the election.
LIASSON: But they did. And when the Democrats finally did bring their plan to the floor this weekend, they still didn't have a unified position. Some moderates in the Senate were opposed to letting the upper-income tax cuts expire, and in the House, Blue Dogs and members from affluent districts, like Virginia's Gerry Connolly, wanted a permanent extension of the middle income cuts and a temporary extension of the rest. Connolly felt stuck in the middle.
LIASSON: The Republicans are just - they're into denial about the deficit implications of a permanent extension of everything. And the Democrats are into denial about the potential economic consequences of allowing the upper income bracket tax cuts to expire. And this is an opportunity for the White House to actually carve out some common ground.
LIASSON: Carving out common ground might be what independent voters want the president to do, but his base does not. Here's an ad from moveon.org. - a collage of video from Obama voters - airing in the politically crucial state of Iowa.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
U: What's happened to that bold progressive man we elected president in 2008?
U: The guy who stands for all the people and is not going to let himself get pushed around?
U: Mr. President, please do not compromise with the Republicans about extending the Bush tax cuts.
LIASSON: But Martin Frost, a former member of the Democratic congressional leadership, says President Obama's position is the best the Democrats can do.
LIASSON: The worst thing that can happen for Democrats right now would be to block anyone from getting a tax cut, because - because we're mad about the wealthy getting tax cuts, and then have the economy continue to deteriorate. Then we'd be in real trouble, because people would - not just Republicans, but a lot of people would say well, the Democrats made the situation worse because they didn't let the tax cuts go forward on January 1st.
LIASSON: But that raises an obvious question: why wouldn't the Republicans be blamed for holding the middle-class cuts hostage to a tax cut for the rich?
LIASSON: You're asking me why the Democratic Party isn't very good at messaging right now, I don't have an answer for that. But the facts of the matter are that the Republicans have run circles around us on messaging recently. You can argue that the president needed to be out stronger earlier, that's soundly possible, but we can't win this message war, I don't believe. The best the president can do is say we did no harm; we did not make the economy worse.
LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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