The tax deal is this cycle’s ‘bailout’

Brian Phillips Contributor
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An interesting dynamic is quickly surrounding the debate over the tax deal forged by President Obama and Senate Republicans. While early analysis from pundits attempted to declare either Republicans or Democrats winners, the issue is creating clear factions inside the parties, echoing what happened during the debate over the Wall Street bailout in 2008.

The significance, of course, is that the Tea Party movement started largely as a backlash against the bailouts, which became a litmus test in many GOP primaries around the country. Several moderate Republicans lost their party’s nomination as a result of their support for the bailouts. Will opposition to the tax deal be the new rallying cry for fiscal conservatives in 2012?

Battle lines are already being drawn in the contest for the GOP’s presidential nod. Governors Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, and Rep. Mike Pence, are opposed. Governors Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, as well as former Speaker Newt Gingrich, support the tax deal. Each give varying reasons for their positions, but in primary politics, the details rarely matter. You’re either for it or against it.

The early advantage goes to those who oppose the deal. For starters, it means you stand opposite Obama. The experience of Governor Charlie Christ in Florida should be a lesson for anyone getting too chummy with the president. They also get points for appearing principled in their opposition to anything that would increase the national debt — a key campaign promise for many Tea Party-backed candidates.

But time will tell if those supporting the deal are taking a clever political risk. If the economy improves and employment increases, the deal backers can rightly claim the move to prevent a massive tax hike was the cause. It also moves them away from the GOP fringe — perhaps not the best play for a primary, but it will help them make the case for electability against Obama should they win.

Still, five of the six possible candidates mentioned above, as well as others rumored to be looking at a run, Governors Haley Barbour and Bobby Jindal, have the luxury of not having to cast a vote. Members of Congress will have a yea or nay on their records and, depending on which way they vote, that could have a major impact on whether or not they face tough primaries.

For example, Senator Olympia Snowe must choose wisely. Maine recently flipped from blue to red after decades of Democratic rule in large part due to the Tea Party’s influence. So far there are no serious contenders, but casting her lot with Obama on a bill seen as fiscally irresponsible and a rebuke of Tea Party principles could push a viable candidate to step in.

Senator Scott Brown is also skating on thin ice. His vote to support the financial regulation overhaul was perceived as treasonous by many activists who feel he is a senator today because of their help. He remains the state’s most popular politician, so a successful primary challenge is unlikely. However, 2010 generated tremendous excitement amongst rock-ribbed Republicans in Massachusetts who now have a number of quality, seasoned candidates to choose from.

The criticism coming from those who consider themselves the most principled fiscal conservatives proves that the Tea Party sentiments are still very strong within the GOP. “Bailout” became a dirty word as a result of their efforts. “Tax deal” could be next.

Brian Phillips is a veteran of House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns and has worked in Congress. Most recently, he managed Sean Bielat’s campaign in Massachusetts. Follow on Twitter @BPhil202