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Democrats, time to stop railing at tax deal

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger: Democrats didn't have votes to get rid of tax cuts for the wealthy last summer
  • Borger: Keep in mind president maneuvered what amounts to another jobs stimulus bill
  • She says it's expensive, so the GOP is promoting spending and complicit in deficit issue
  • Obama has chance to change discussion, she says, with look at tax code to help lower deficit

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."

(CNN) -- So I clearly remember one morning last summer when the issue of the Bush-era tax cuts came up during a breakfast with a top Democrat. I naturally asked what the party's game plan might be on extending those tax cuts. Would they make the issue of tax cuts for the middle class a centerpiece of the fall campaign? Or would they punt until after the election?

The Democrat's answer: We're not sure. (Shocking, I know.)

As it turns out, the Democrats actually did both: They had a go at the class warfare (GOP holding the middle-class tax cuts hostage for tax cuts for the wealthy) argument. Then they punted and didn't vote on the issue before the election.

So when the Democrats angrily declare President Obama a sellout on the issue of taxes, last summer comes to mind: If it was such a touchstone for Democrats, why didn't they vote on it before the election?

The real answer is they didn't have the votes. Scared moderate Democrats were balking at any votes to raise taxes. Oh, and one more thing: House Democrats didn't trust their Senate brethren to pass it.

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So nothing happened.

And now, as they rail against Obama's compromise with Republicans (who, by the way, will have a lot more votes and control of the House next year), how about this thought: Where were you last fall?

Nowhere, as it turns out. And now, the president has cut a deal. And the Democrats who oppose it have little high ground. Obama called his opponents "sanctimonious." He's right.

Yes, the deal contains the temporary tax cuts for the wealthy. But in exchange, the president maneuvered what amounts to another stimulus bill to cut payroll and small business taxes, extend unemployment benefits and tuition tax credits, among other things. Some estimates say it injects about $300 billion into the economy next year. It's a jobs bill. An expensive one, but a jobs bill.

The cost, not the content, is the real problem. It's a $990 billion package -- with not one penny paid for. If it all passes, the Republicans will be openly complicit in the deficit issue. They're all spenders now.

That, by the way, could turn out to be a good thing. The public wants the deficit issue solved, and the Congress, jointly, is openly dining at the buffet table.

It's an opportunity for Obama. There's a perfect moment for him to segue into Phase II, and that's in his January State of the Union speech. He can redefine both who he is -- and the debate. He can offer a grand plan for change (heard that before?) as well as deficit reduction. He can change the discussion.

How so? Take a look at the report of the deficit commission. It offered a paradigm-changing coupling of deficit reduction through reform of the tax code. Simplify the tax code by getting rid of certain deductions, which raises money. It's not easy, but it's smart.

The president hinted Tuesday that he's interested in reforming the code. And a senior White House adviser told me Tuesday that it's something they are looking at. It calls the Republicans' bluff: They've always hated the complex code. So ask them to fix it, and raise revenues at the same time.

Don't forget. Three GOP senators on the deficit commission bought onto that deal. The time to offer it is now, right after Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have gone on a spending bender.

As we know from this tax debate, courage isn't exactly a plentiful commodity on Capitol Hill. But now that the Republicans have feasted at the same table as the president, maybe they'll find the political need to clean it up and take the necessary next steps together.

At the risk of sounding too Pollyannaish, let me put it this way: It's in their own self-interest to get it done. And that's when things happen in Washington.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.