The latest installment of the popular quarterly soap opera "Congressional Brinksmanship" wrapped up with much drama just before this weekend's holiday. This particular episode was fought over the extension of the payroll tax cut—an issue that you'd expect Republicans to love and Democrats to be leery of. Instead, it was the other way around—once President Obama made it his mission to extend the tax cut, congressional Republicans dug in against him (as they have made it their life's work to do). Eventually, it became clear that public opinion was coalescing against them, and House Republicans agreed to a two-month extension of the tax cut.
This White House has had something of a difficult time winning PR battles—most notably with its landmark health-care law, which was a major legislative achievement but which even liberals view unfavorably. The one over the payroll tax cut, however, was waged masterfully. The centerpiece of the effort was a Twitter campaign that asked the social network's 100+ million active users, "What does $40 mean to you?" (Never mind the small detail that "40 dollars" is plural.) Forty dollars is, of course, the amount an average family saves every two weeks as long as the tax cut is in place. If you're one of the White House's 2.6 million followers, you certainly witnessed the overwhelming response: the hashtag "#40dollars" even trended on Twitter, leading the White House director of new media to call it the administration's most successful social-media campaign. The public reaction to the payroll-tax debate, epitomized on Twitter, was the straw that broke the Republicans' backs—a textbook example of the president's power to persuade.
The White House had a lot to celebrate this Christmas, from the signing of the tax cut extension to the fact that they actually out-messaged Republicans for once. But I believe it will prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for them. In any conflict, the downside to using a killer tactic or secret weapon is that it's not a secret anymore; the other side is thenceforth able to use it against you. It's even worse when the tactic is one that more naturally fits your enemy's strengths and not your own—and that is the case here. Democrats find themselves in support of tax cuts about once in a blue moon; meanwhile, Republicans are much likelier to find use for a "#40dollars"-esque campaign going forward. Expect the GOP to learn from this example in the future: not only to emphasize the real-world savings of a tax cut to average Americans, but to appeal directly to them to cause them to consider what that extra cash would mean to them. In fact, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in one year will probably set up a far more explosive battle over a much more consequential tax. In that fight, Republicans will be the ones arguing for an extension—and now they know exactly how to win that argument.