Democrats hope the Republican battle for 2012 begins now.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 1 2010 3:17 PM

How Ugly Will It Get?

Democrats hope the Republican battle for 2012 begins now.

Play  Lean/Lock, Slate's election-prediction game.

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Will Sarah Palin be the GOP nominee in 2012? Democrats hope so.

Each week until the election, I'm posting some of the questions I'm trying to answer based on news of the week or something that's come up in my reporting. In the following weeks, I'll try to answer some of these questions. Feel free to weigh in with answers—or with more political questions—at slatepolitics@gmail.com or in the comments section below. Here are this week's questions:

Will the Republican presidential race get nasty quickly? David Plouffe, the architect of Barack Obama's 2008 victory, says he wouldn't mind at all it if Sarah Palin were to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2012. She seems like the leader of the conservative movement, but a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that the Republican Party has no clear front-runner for 2012. That might be even better for Plouffe and his client. No clear front-runner means a messy fight to the nomination. In 1996 and 2008, the GOP base was suspicious of front-runners Bob Dole and John McCain. That led to primary challenges that drained both candidates of money and energy. This election cycle—and forgive me, I'm already referring to 2012—the battle for the direction of the Republican Party seems more intense than it was two or 14 years ago. There's the Tea Party vs. the establishment and, as Pat Buchanan put it, the Tea Party vs. the War Party. Will the GOP presidential primary be especially ugly this time?

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Was the Democrats' tax-cut gambit a big mistake? At President Obama's news conference three weeks ago, he started a new fight with Republicans. The GOP, he said, was holding tax cuts to the middle class "hostage" in order to get tax cuts for the wealthy. The idea was to use the issue to frame the choice in the election—budget-busting millionaire lovers vs. protectors of the middle class. Not all Democrats thought this was a great idea. One veteran strategist pointed out that voters who care the most about taxes tend to be Republicans. Another strategist said the president and his advisers overestimate the impact of their issues. "First health care was supposed to help us, then Wall Street reform, now taxes," the adviser said. "Policy fights from Congress don't really help. Sometimes they hurt." (The reason, he went on to explain, was that these votes don't really help the vulnerable members who are in toss-up districts, where the president and the Democratic Party are unpopular. If they vote for the legislation, the benefits of the legislation aren't easy to sell to voters and if they don't it's never really possible to distance themselves from the Democratic party that was pushing the legislation.)

Now it has come to pass that Democrats couldn't really win that fight over the tax cuts, in part because so many Democrats in the House and Senate were against the president's position. Proof of that is the Democrats who voted against adjourning the House's session this week. House Minority Leader John Boehner said the vote to adjourn was a vote to raise taxes, because if lawmakers left town without a vote on the tax cuts, they were implicitly signaling their intention to allow the tax cuts to expire. As it turns out, the motion to adjourn passed by a single vote, with 39 Democrats against it.

In the end, Democrats were unable to move the tax bill. But will they win the political argument? White House aides are still trying to make the case—they've even put out a new video in which White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee takes to the whiteboard. But as a sign of who muddled the whole business has become, Republicans are making their own case using a White House video, too.

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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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