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Boehner Joins Reagan, Kennedy in Political Crow-Eating Moments

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s acceptance of a two-month payroll tax-cut extension after he spent several days disparaging the plan is the daily special on a long menu of political crow.

Similar dishes: President Barack Obama’s debt-ceiling deal with Republicans that didn’t include the new revenue he earlier demanded, President George H.W. Bush’s tax increase after his campaign directive to “read my lips” and California Governor Ronald Reagan cracking out of self-imposed concrete to raise taxes.

“We know that politicians make public commitments, and we know that our system demands compromise,” Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an interview yesterday. “We shouldn’t be surprised that they find themselves having to backtrack.”

Such cave-ins typically play out over months or years -- not in just a few days, as happened with Boehner’s response to the short-term payroll tax cut passed by the Senate Dec. 17.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, began Dec. 22 by defending his days-long rejection of the Senate’s bipartisan deal, saying at a press conference “the best policy is a one-year extension.” He ended the day by announcing he was accepting the Senate plan, preventing a Jan. 1 increase in the tax from 4.2 to 6.2 percent for 160 million U.S. workers.

Less Clear Cut

The technical nature of the payroll tax debate -- a yearlong extension rather than a two-month one -- means it probably won’t stick in public memory the way a more clear-cut flip-flop does, Binder said.

“Read my lips: No new taxes,” Bush said while accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. He raised taxes in 1990 as part of a deficit-reduction plan.

Bush suffered, losing a second term, in part because he “never fully explained to people why he did what he did” in breaking the campaign promise, Larry Sabato, director of the center for politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said in an interview yesterday.

In contrast, “Boehner helped himself when he conceded that in political terms, the Republicans had essentially been outclassed,” Sabato said, referring to the speaker’s statements at a Dec. 22 press conference.

Reagan’s Collapses

Reagan also notched a number of memorably colorful collapses.

Before taking the governor’s office in cash-strapped California in 1967, Reagan insisted his feet were “set in concrete” on the issue of raising taxes. In 1971, as the Republican signed a tax increase, he said at a press conference, “The sound you hear is the concrete cracking around my feet.”

U.S. House Democrats dished up another serving of crow when Reagan was president and pushed for cuts to Social Security benefits.

Then-Speaker Tip O’Neill and fellow Democrats “just blasted the White House,” Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, said in an interview yesterday. “The administration backed away from it and never talked about it again. It was a famous backing down of a very popular president.”

About-faces cross party lines.

Lyndon B. Johnson set the stage for a flop when he was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president Aug. 26, 1964: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

The Vietnam war continued throughout his presidency.

New Revenue

Obama, a Democrat seeking re-election next year, consistently said in July he wouldn’t agree to a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling unless it included new revenue as well as spending cuts sought by Republicans. He then hunkered down with the Republicans and hashed out a plan without tax increases, drawing complaints from his party.

“There was caving this time,” Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said as Obama signed the deal Aug. 2.

The president also backpedaled in December 2010, a month after Democrats suffered losses in the midterm election, on continuing income tax cuts first enacted in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush. Obama agreed to extend the expiring breaks for all income levels after insisting the highest earners should pay more.

High-Profile Defeats

“High-profile defeats are part of how it works -- half of Washington usually is losing,” Zelizer said. “It’s not so much about having to reverse yourself, it’s how you handle it. Either you want the public not to be paying a lot of attention, or you want to claim this is the outcome you wanted all along.”

George W. Bush was a “master” at adopting a loss as a win, Zelizer and Binder said. He was opposed to creating the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- until it became clear Congress would pass it.

“’Yep, that was my idea,’” Binder said, describing Bush’s reaction. “That’s a great way to put these potential debacles behind you.”

Admitting failure after a high-profile political mistake can help offset blow-back, Zelizer said.

President John F. Kennedy’s popularity rose after he acknowledged policy errors in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

“We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors,” Kennedy said in April 1961.

Eisenhower and D-Day

An example of being prepared to accept one’s political mistakes came from the man who would become the 34th president. General Dwight Eisenhower on June 5, 1944, drafted a statement for possible release if the following day’s allied invasion of Europe went awry.

The landings “have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” Eisenhower wrote in the note later found by an aide. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

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