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Unpopular politics win

It’s a match made in heaven: Congressional Republicans have mastered the art of hostage-holding, and President Obama loves to capitulate. What’s surprising is how willing both sides are to “compromise” on issues of gross unpopularity with the American public.

Let’s start with tax cuts for the rich, which Obama and the GOP have agreed to extend for two years. According to a “CBS News” poll late last week, only 26 percent of Americans want the budget-busting Bush tax cuts extended on all income. An outright majority — 53 percent — wants them extended for just the first $250,000 in household income. Not even a majority of Republicans are in favor of extending the Bush tax cuts for income over $250,000.

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The unpopularity of the “tax cuts for Paris Hilton” position hasn’t deterred the GOP, nor has it given Obama courage to fight for the popular position. 

Meanwhile, the Obama-GOP deal doesn’t include additional benefits for the long-term unemployed, the so-called 99ers who have exhausted all their jobless benefits. A late-November USA Today/Gallup poll found that 76 percent of respondents thought it was very or somewhat important to extend such benefits, compared to 24 who thought it wasn’t important. Yet Republicans have wholeheartedly sided with this heartless minority, and Obama didn’t consider it important to fight for yet another popular position.

Then there’s the stinker of the Deficit Reduction Commission, which Obama convened to show his concern for the nation’s debt. Problem is, despite all the hysterical rhetoric, right now no one truly cares about the deficit. Ask Americans about the issues they are most concerned about, and the deficit barely registers. A CBS poll back in November found only 4 percent of respondents thought Congress should concentrate on the deficit first when it convened in January. Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the deficit hysteria gripping D.C. At the top of the list? The economy and jobs, with a solid 56 percent of respondents. Makes sense. Heck, if congressional Republicans really cared about the deficit, they wouldn’t still be pushing the same Bush tax policies that gave us much of today’s massive debt. 

What about the deficit commission’s work product? There was none, though a draft report by the commission’s co-chairmen has been adopted by the Beltway Establishment as de facto recommendations. The American public has responded to those recommendations as enthusiastically as the rest of the commission did — by giving it a big thumbs-down: A mid-November NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 25 percent of respondents favored the commission’s draft report, which called for 75 percent of savings to come from spending cuts, and just 25 percent for new tax cuts, while taking the knife to Social Security, Medicare and the mortgage deduction. Expect some of its most unpopular provisions to feature heavily in the 2011 legislative agenda.

As for the most popular agenda items? They face uphill battles. Comprehensive immigration reform remains wildly popular among Americans of all political stripes, as does repeal of the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Both face tough odds in the lame-duck session, and even worse chances when the new Congress is sworn in. The war in Afghanistan continues unabated despite its unpopularity, while cherished Social Security now has a perpetual bull’s-eye painted on it.

And therein lies the paradox of D.C. — the less popular something is, the more likely it is to become reality. Is it any wonder people hate government?

Moulitsas is the founder of Daily Kos and author of American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right.