You could almost hear the GOP tectonic plates shifting last week as President Obama appeared to solidify his lead over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republicans further down the food chain for the first time began imagining another four years of Democratic rule in the White House.
First, a handful of Republicans battling for election in close Senate races in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Nevada publicly distanced themselves from Romney’s surreptitiously videotaped comments that “47 percent” of Americans think of themselves as victims, pay no income taxes and are dependent on government support. ”That’s not the way I view the world,” said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who is struggling to fend off a challenge by Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Then Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was upstaged by actor Kevin Sorbo, best known for playing Hercules on television, when the two appeared before the House Republicans weekly conference meeting. "I kinda feel bad for Paul Ryan ... upstaged by Hercules!" one Republican source jokingly told the Huffington Post. “The Romney campaign just can’t catch a break.”
Most telling of all is that House and Senate Republicans have begun openly speculating on how Congress and the White House would address the looming fiscal cliff if Obama wins a second term. Even while they were packing their bags and preparing to head home to campaign through the Nov. 6 election, some GOP lawmakers were privately conferring with administration officials and spinning out possible scenarios for action in the event of a Romney loss.
Unless lawmakers and the administration can work out their differences over the budget, entitlements and taxes before the end of the year, the economy will be jarred next January by $665 billion worth of expiring tax cuts, vanishing unemployment benefits and automatic across-the-board cuts in defense and domestic spending that many fear would shove the country back into a recession.
However, taxes are a major issue in the campaign between Obama and Romney, with the president insisting that wealthy Americans must pay more in taxes next year while the former Massachusetts governor is calling for an additional 20 percent across the board tax cut for all Americans.
For the first time, Capitol Hill Republican veterans are saying that the winner of the presidential race will be able to claim a mandate for his policies.
“This is a referendum on taxes,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the House Budget Committee, told the Washington Post late last week. “If the president wins reelection, taxes are going up” for the nation’s wealthiest households, and “there’s not a lot we can do about that.”
“I hope, obviously, the status quo doesn’t prevail” on Nov. 6,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told the Post. “But if things stay as they are, and all the players are generally the same ...finding a responsible reform for Medicare is the secret to unleashing very productive talks that would put in place a balanced solution to our fiscal problems. If you deal with the Medicare issue, then Republicans are far more open to looking at revenues.”
The implications of this sudden change in tone by at least some Republicans on Capitol Hill is obvious: Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and a raft of other policy makers and politicians have been warning for months – to little avail -- that the country was headed for a fiscal cliff that would put an enormous drag on the economy and potentially throw millions more of Americans out of work.
Now, the two parties are beginning to talk about finding ways to buy time after the election to work out a grand bargain of sorts that will avert a wholesale increase in taxes and block deep automatic cuts in defense. And they are acknowledging that increased tax revenues will be on the table for discussion. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner met with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., according to Politico. The meeting with Camp focused on the year-end expiration of tax rates.
Obama and the Democrats are enjoying an increasing advantage in the polls, and that’s largely because of Romney’s clumsy and opportunistic handling of the recent flare-ups in the Middle East and his series of gaffes, including his statement about the 47 percent.
For sure, Romney still has a chance to turn things around with strong showings in the three upcoming presidential debates – just as he used two boffo debate performances to topple a seemingly high flying Newt Gingrich in the Florida GOP primary.
Moreover, Obama is not immune to missteps or inartful statements of his own, as when he declared in June that the private sector was “doing fine” despite continued high unemployment, or telling the Spanish-language broadcaster Univision this week that the “most important lesson” he’s learned in four years is that “you can't change Washington from the inside."
But the burden of changing the current campaign narrative rests squarely with Romney, and for now, the polls and the challenges of raising money are working against Romney. The former governor and founder of Bain Capital seemingly has bumped up against a glass ceiling in the polls. Romney has trailed Obama since October 2011, according to the average of head-to-head polls by RealClearPolitics. Among the seven decisive battleground states, Romney currently leads in just one: North Carolina.
Obama has opened an 8-point lead in Iowa and maintains a five-point edge in Colorado and Wisconsin, according to new Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist Poll survey of the three battleground states. The new poll results are important in part because the Romney campaign views the three states as stepping stones to an Electoral College majority, given Romney’s slippage in polls in the other critical battleground states of Ohio and Virginia, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, told the Journal, “We feel like we’re in a very close contest” and “We feel like Romney is likely to win.”
Yet, as some prominent Republicans begin to distance themselves from Romney and his statements and others begin positioning themselves for some post election deal making with the Obama administration, things aren’t looking particularly bright for Mitt Romney just 44 days before the election.