WASHINGTON - Over the last 20 years, Washington politics has steadily declined into a partisan miasma. It reached its nadir this week, when House Republicans blocked a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits.

The face-saving capitulation by the House on Thursday afternoon to agree to the Senate's two-month extension, which was passed with 89 votes, was too late to prevent lasting damage to House Republicans.

President Barack Obama called the House majority’s bluff and is coming off as the reasonable man in the middle trying to help Americans struggling to get by in a sluggish economy.

Obama didn’t need more help to get re-elected, but this week Republicans gave it to him anyway. Obama’s position among independent voters likely will strengthen over the next few months as he contrasts himself with the intransigent House GOP and a Republican presidential nominee whose bland message is simply that he’s not Obama.

Obama promised voters in 2008 that he would transform the way Washington works. Instead, he has exacerbated the partisan divide he found when he arrived at the White House – and is stoking it to gain an election advantage.

The first slip on the downward slope occurred when President Bill Clinton imported the War Room from his 1992 presidential campaign into the White House. Just as the election centered on “winning” each news cycle, so did policy debates.

Republican push back against the War Room culminated in the 1994 GOP takeover of the House. The momentum from that historic victory, however, went awry and resulted in the 1995 government shutdown, which helped get Clinton reelected.

Not long after the bitter taste of the government closure had dissipated, congressional Republicans impeached Clinton, marking another partisan low.

President George W. Bush had a chance to mend the rift after the terrorist attacks of the Sept. 2011. He had the Congress and the country in the palm of his hand, as he responded to the tragedy. Instead of creating a quieter, more thoughtful politics in the capital, Bush sought GOP gains in the 2002 election by attacking Democrats as soft on national security.

Democrats carried a grudge that was amplified by a close loss to Bush in the 2004 election. The political cauldron bubbled with resentment Democratic resentment of Bush until the party regained control of the House and Senate in 2007.

Bush was still the poster boy for Democratic rage in 2008, when Obama won the White House and Democrats extended their Senate majority to a filibuster-proof 60 votes. In control of the executive and legislative branches of government in 2009, Democrats vented built-up spleen by ramming through a massive economic stimulus package and sweeping health care reform with virtually no Republican support.

This led to the next “wave” election in 2010, when Republicans took back the House and increased their minority in the Senate to a filibuster-ensuring 47. That ballot brought the politics of grievance to the forefront, with the advent of the anti-government Tea Party.

This year, the left got into the politics of grievance mode as the Occupy Wall Street movement entered the scene. Meanwhile, political fights over the last few months have brought the country to the brink of defaulting on its massive debt, resulted in the failure of the deficit-reduction super committee and have produced the payroll-tax debacle.

Hoosier House Republicans were trying to cast the situation in the best light prior to the House caving on Thursday.

“Right now, Congress needs to do something for middle class Americans and job creators alike,” U.S. Rep. Todd Young, R-9th CD, said in a statement. “As every credible source has told us, extending the payroll tax for only two months would be nearly impossible to implement and would create two more months of uncertainty for the economy.”

None of the freshmen GOP seem to be worried about the political repercussions of opposing the payroll tax cut.

“This is not the time for political calculations,” wrote James Wegmann, spokesman for Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd CD, in an email. “The simplest calculation is the fact that, under the House-passed plan, families will keep an average of $1,000, but, under the Senate’s punt, they would receive just $167 without a year-long guarantee.”

The Hoosier freshmen also are sanguine about Obama stealing the tax-cut issue.

“President Obama has enacted and proposed some of the largest tax increases in history,” wrote Tim Edson, communications director for U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-4th CD. “Rarely a day goes by that he isn’t talking about raising taxes, creating a bigger government and starting more programs. “

The problem for House Republicans is that this standoff with Obama will be portrayed as the House digging in its heals and demanding that it get its way – now, not after negotiations with the Senate in February for a full-year payroll-tax-cut extension.

It will be cast as another example of the politics of grievance – and play into Obama’s re-election.

Schoeff is Howey Politics Indiana's Washington correspondent.