Let’s get the obligatory observations out of the way first: avoiding a default on the debt ceiling was a necessity for an economy that in many respects is already lifeless. That economic reality, and the refusal of House Republicans to budge on their priorities, tied the hands of both President Obama and congressional Democrats.
But politics grades results by who won and who lost, and on that core question, this is not close: The “compromise” reached Sunday night is a full-throated Democratic concession. It is a stunningly good deal for Republicans and the opposite for Barack Obama.
To take inventory, Republicans secured their most cherished priority by averting a rollback of corporate deductions or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Ten days ago, one or the other appeared to be within reach of Democratic negotiators. In addition, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have installed a “trigger” for future cuts that will muddy the Democrats’ message on Medicare.
In fairness, it shouldn’t: There is a vast difference between handing over Medicare to the private insurance market, as all but four House Republicans voted to do earlier this year, and trimming the growth of provider subsidies. But Democrats failed miserably at making that case during the healthcare debate, when cuts to Medicare Advantage subsidies were ruthlessly, and effectively, turned against Democrats and there is no particular reason to think they will do better next year.
Republicans have also stripped Democrats of the additional discretionary spending they need to shore up their domestic priority list, including job training, education, and infrastructure. Nor did Republicans have to make a tradeoff by giving ground on extending unemployment benefits or the payroll tax cuts. It should gall Democrats even more that Republicans have had to pay no political price for their hostility to middle tax class tax relief and extra assistance to the unemployed–both deeply unpopular GOP stances that Democrats have utterly failed to exploit.
As for Obama, it is sad to say but the truth is that he was all but invisible at the end and reaps no credit. The deal came too late for his threats or lectures to have seemed decisive. It is also much too late to inspire a sustained market boost, and the deal is completely lacking in any stimulative measures that might have juiced consumer confidence.
Finally, the fact that Obama has yielded again on taxes means that he has sacrificed one more opportunity for the populist positioning that he desperately needs to regain by next year’s election. This is no small point: It can be argued that Obama’s most crucial political error is “owning” the Bush Administration’s TARP policies in 2009 and therefore aligning himself with a recovery strategy that privileged Wall Street’s interests over middle class relief. That choice has set Obama back with the critical group of blue collar white independents–the descendants of the “Reagan Democrats”, who gave Obama his margin in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsyalvania. The president’s continuing failure to define himself as a policy centrist rather than a conventional liberal means that he has the worst of all worlds: a centrist shift for which he has been given no reward.
It goes without saying that the political process has been wounded by the dysfunction on display the last two weeks, and that public disregard for Washington is near toxic. And yes, it is genuinely worse than before: the animus toward George W. Bush’s policies on Iraq and the economy was tempered by a sense that Republican ideology had gone astray, and that a sensible, consensus oriented Democrat could reverse the damage. This is how Barack Obama won so convincingly without ever laying out a detailed program, and with the burdens of race and inexperience. However, the loathing toward Washington today is based on a conviction that politics as an enterprise is broken, and that both parties are culprits in the mess. If you doubt this, take notice of Obama’s drop to 40 percent in the Gallup Poll last week, and the historic levels of disapproval for both parties.
But give tactical credit where it is due: under extraordinary pressure, Republicans stood their ground, while Obama and congressional Democrats retreated. It may not be leadership, but it is a breathtaking comeback for a conservatism and a party that looked moribund two and a half years ago.