The relative ease of finger-pointing

THE RELATIVE EASE OF FINGER-POINTING…. That Democrats have managed to royally screw up the fight over tax policy is no longer in doubt. The remaining questions are what they’ll end up with in terms of the final deal and knowing who’s responsible for the breakdown.

I started to put together some notes last night on this — here’s a preview: there’s plenty of blame to go around — but I’m inclined to hold off until the issue is entirely resolved. Questions of culpability may be even clearer when the dust settles.

That said, I think some Democratic lawmakers who are pointing the finger at the White House are dismissing their own role a little too casually.

The sense of frustration among Senate Democrats over the White House’s handling of the tax cut debate has grown throughout the week…. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) did a little less dancing. “I just think, if [Obama] caves on this, then I think that he’s gonna have a lot of swimming upstream [to do],” said the Iowa Democrat, an unabashed progressive who has been less reticent than most in criticizing the White House. “He campaigned on [allowing the rates for the rich to expire], was very strong on that, and sometimes there are things that are just worth fighting for.”

And if he decided to compromise away from that, a reporter asked the senator.

“He would then just be hoping and praying that Sarah Palin gets the nomination,” Harkin replied, insinuating that there would be few other Republicans that Obama could assuredly beat in 2012.

That was Harkin on Thursday. Here’s Harkin on Wednesday.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said he would be open to voting for a temporary extension of the high-end tax cuts, but it “depends on what is all in the package.”

“We’ve got our appropriations bills, we’ve got a lot of other things floating around here, the START Treaty, so we have to see what is in the package,” Harkin said. “There may be some package I could vote for.”

My goal here is not to pick on Harkin, a senator I’ve long admired. The point, though, is that President Obama established the Democratic baseline on tax policy quite a while ago — permanent cuts for those making less than $250,000; Clinton-era top rates for the wealthy — and he’s stuck to it for nearly two years, including through the election season. The president appears poised to yield to GOP demands now, which is unfortunate, but is largely a reflection of what transpired on Capitol Hill, where Dems chose to stray from the baseline Obama had already set.

In this particular case, we see Harkin on Thursday demanding that Obama fight against the same Republican plan Harkin was open to on Wednesday.

Or put another way, Harkin said on Wednesday that he could support tax breaks for the wealthy, so long as Democrats got something out of the deal. Harkin said a day later that President Obama would be making a grave error supporting tax breaks for the wealthy, no matter what Democrats got out of the deal.

Obama’s the leader, so I appreciate the fact that the buck is usually going to stop with him. If he decided to cut off talks with Republicans and announce he wouldn’t blink in this game of chicken, the president could certainly do that. But for those who are inclined to blame Obama — and Obama alone — for what’s transpired, it’s worth remembering that’s an overly narrow, incomplete picture.