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Is the GOP Finally Winning?

Is the GOP Finally Winning?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 11, 2013

A funny thing happened on the Republicans’ way to rebranding themselves.

Before they could get around to any serious recalibration, the nation’s fiscal crisis intruded, and since the start of this new Congress and President’s Obama’s inauguration in January, Republican lawmakers have dug in their heels on the budget, refused to cede ground on sequestration cuts, opposed new tax increases as a requisite for a deficit reduction deal, and cribbed off journalist Bob Woodward’s reporting of the 2011 debt ceiling debacle to blame Obama for taking a meat cleaver to the federal budget.

These tactics are not new. If anything, it was only a holding pattern while the party tried to figure out who its future leaders were and what kind of an alternative they could coalesce around as an alternative to sequestration.

So as Republicans wrung their hands, editorialists -- and even some Republicans -- pronounced the GOP as stale as last year’s bread. Meanwhile, Obama campaigned against them vigorously in sequester-related events across the country predicting the end of life as Americans knew it. And the poll numbers changed, too, just not in the expected direction.

When the sky did not fall, the president’s approval rating did -- and employment increased. Suddenly, Obama was talking more about tax and entitlement reform and deficit reduction.

It is worth pointing out that Congress, especially Republicans, have been suffering from ratings so anemic they couldn’t get much lower. It’s also true that Obama’s higher-than-normal numbers were probably reflective of his re-election, and he had more ground to lose.

But by forecasting plague-like consequences of the across-the-board spending reductions, Obama may have put himself and his party directly in the path of voter disaffection. To be sure, Republicans voted for the sequester, and they warned of dire policy results too. But both sides ultimately acquiesced to $85 billion worth of budget cuts that Republicans were quicker to see were more palatable to voters than to Washington elites.

“Nobody likes the meat cleaver approach, but the end result is we have had spending reductions,” said South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney. “What have we done with the sequester? We’ve driven the president to the forefront. By standing firm on those spending reductions, we changed the dialogue.”

The heated dialogue about deficits and spending between Congress and the White House has been taking place over years. So far, these have yielded $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction, and the president is calling for about $1.5 trillion more. Obama and the Democrats continue to call for a “balanced approach” to reducing the deficit, which is code for adding new revenues to any kind of budget deal.

GOP leaders reluctantly accepted a rise in tax rates for Americans in the $400,000 income bracket. This was only half a loaf for the president: He’d been insisting on doing away with the Bush-era tax cuts for American families earning $250,000 a year. Consequently, the fiscal cliff deal reached on New Year’s Day will likely generate about half the new revenue the White House had hoped for.

Nonetheless, Republicans say the debate on raising income taxes is finished. GOP lawmakers are open to closing tax loopholes to generate more revenue, but they say it should not be used for more federal spending. This remains a significant impasse between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill. But Republicans think the public is moving their way.

Mulvaney adds: “The country is talking about spending. And [Obama] loses when the country is talking about spending.”

One of dozens of Republicans elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, Mulvaney has been critical of his conference’s leadership, and he did not vote for John Boehner for speaker. But Mulvaney and some of his conservative colleagues such as Raul Labrador of Idaho and Jim Jordan of Ohio have noted a change in the dynamic of their ranks.

“We’re all pulling in the same direction,” Mulvaney said. “We’re much more unified this year. And maybe the president realizes that.”

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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