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11.16.11

Warning Signs GOP Has Overreached Heading Into 2012 Elections

From thumping defeats on anti-union and anti-abortion bills to Republican lawmakers weighing tax hikes, the party may be realizing it pushed its 2010 victory way too far. Jill Lawrence reports.

Will 2012 look more like the Republican avalanche of 2010 or the Democratic sweeps of 2006 and 2008? From last week’s elections to Newt Gingrich’s rise in the polls, the tea leaves suggest that the Tea Party is not what it used to be and that making big fast changes is risky, especially if you didn’t campaign on them.

Overreach is an overused word, but the messages voters sent last week, particularly in Ohio, were not lost on conservatives and Republicans. “The 2010 elections made it abundantly clear that people are gravely concerned about excessive spending and debt, and want to rein in size and scope of government,” says former Reagan adviser Sal Russo, cofounder and chief strategist of the Tea Party Express. “Does that mean that every proposal that fits that description is going to be successful? Of course not. When people feel like the pendulum has swung too far, they’re going to respond negatively.”

GOP strategist Rich Galen says Ohio Gov. John Kasich “way overreached” with his law gutting collective-bargaining rights for public employees, as did the anti-abortion activists who put a “personhood” amendment on the ballot in Mississippi. Ohio voters rejected the Kasich law last week, while Mississippi voters rejected the ballot measure to define a fetus as a person.

“The edges of the parties think they have sway, but under our system, the vast non-ideological middle makes the decisions,” says Galen.

Looking ahead, three dates that will give us clues to the general election landscape:

Nov. 23. This is the deadline for the congressional “supercommittee” to agree on a debt-reduction plan. Many are pessimistic about its ability to reach consensus on a bipartisan plan that raises enough tax revenue to satisfy the six Democrats on the panel and sufficiently curbs the growth of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to satisfy the six Republicans.

Yet there have been developments that reflect the gravity of the debt problem and the impatience of voters who want to see results. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a supercommittee member who once was president of the vehemently antitax Club for Growth, proposed a plan that included $300 billion in new tax revenues. Never mind that Democrats immediately rejected the amount as paltry and elusive. Toomey is prepared to break the no-new-tax pledge he and practically every Republican in Congress signed. He’s among several senators and 40 House Republicans who have signaled a willingness to find new revenues—that is, to raise taxes.

Toomey and GOP Sen. Tom Coburn both said over the weekend that getting a debt agreement without compromising on taxes is impossible. “If I were king, this is not the plan I’d put on the table. But if we both went into our respective corners and had no flexibility, then we wouldn’t get anything done,” Toomey said on Fox News Sunday. He set some conditions, saying that “we’re willing to generate a little more revenue” in the context of reforming the tax code. Still, once you open the door to increased taxes, you’re talking numbers rather than principles. That’s a much easier negotiation.

Both parties have good reasons to worry about the election. Republicans on the supercommittee in particular are being squeezed by their party’s militant antitax wing and more moderate voters looking for action on jobs and the debt. Several recent polls show most voters think the GOP is trying to hurt President Obama by blocking his attempts to create jobs. Democrats are tied with or ahead of Republicans in several recent polls when voters are asked which party they want to control Congress, and Obama has moved back into a tie with a generic Republican presidential candidate. None of this means we are about to see the supercommittee send up puffs of white smoke to announce a breakthrough. But the movement toward the middle suggests an agreement or further work on the debt next year is not out of the question.

Jan. 3. This is the date of the Iowa caucuses, when Republicans will vote for their favorite presidential prospect. The candidate perceived as most moderate and electable, Mitt Romney, is at or near the top of the polls in Iowa. After putting millions into the state in 2008 and losing the caucuses to Mike Huckabee, Romney has played it coy in Iowa and now must decide whether to go all in and try to win. As for the rest of the January contests, Romney has a consistent double-digit lead in New Hampshire; he’s a leading contender in South Carolina; and he’s well-positioned in Florida.

The current not-Romney candidate, with Herman Cain slipping, is Gingrich. The former House speaker is making a comeback in national polls, although there is considerable reason to doubt he will be the eventual nominee. Some conservatives say his personal life (adultery, three marriages) makes him unappealing to women and evangelicals, and ultimately unelectable. Plenty of Republicans are spilling anecdotes about the size of his ego and his shortcomings as a manager.

Republicans “thought they could do anything and no one would care,” says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

Still, new national polls Monday from CNN and Public Policy Polling show Gingrich leading or tied for first place. He has risen in large part to fill a void created by the collapse of other candidates. The upshot: Republicans now have cofrontrunners who share histories of compromise with Democrats and who once held a broad array of moderate positions. At one time Gingrich supported the individual health-insurance mandate, and he even made a TV ad with Nancy Pelosi to promote clean energy (which he’s now renounced as “dumb”). He ignited a furor in May when he characterized Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which substitutes a voucher system for Medicare, as “right-wing social engineering.”

Romney has survived this long as a frontrunner despite handicaps that include creating the template for “Obamacare” in Massachusetts and once having backed gay rights, legal abortion, and cap-and-trade. And like Gingrich, who negotiated with Bill Clinton on balanced budgets and welfare reform, Romney worked closely with a Democratic legislature to get things done.

Anything could happen during the nomination season, of course, but the GOP is seeming less and less like the party of Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell.

Jan. 13. This is the deadline for Wisconsin organizers trying to recall Gov. Scott Walker to gather some 540,200 signatures. Recall fever seemed to ebb after a series of state legislative recall elections. Walker’s approval rating rose into the high 40s and former senator Russ Feingold, a potentially formidable opponent, said he probably wouldn’t run against Walker.

All that was before last week’s elections. Kasich’s defeat in Ohio came over essentially the same collective-bargaining issue that triggered the Madison protests. Both Kasich and Walker pushed through laws that virtually ended collective bargaining, though neither had campaigned on the issue. “They thought they could do anything and no one would care,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said on a recent conference call. His takeaway for political leaders: “If you make war on workers, it’s not a good electoral strategy.”

The Ohio victory is a psychological boost for Walker recall organizers and no doubt will become a financial one as well. Galen says labor can now go to its funders and tell them, based on the outcome in Ohio, that “if we have enough money, we can do this.” The Walker recall-petition drive kicked off Nov. 15, and organizers say they are aiming for 750,000 signatures. If they get twice that many and Feingold changes his mind, we’ll have a solid sign that it’s not 2010 anymore.