What’s the Big Deal?

Democrats and Republicans avoid a shutdown, but they make it look harder than it had to be

U.S. President Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama

Imagine a restaurant, Chez Polis, in which the chef and the manager are bitter rivals. One evening they bicker and almost come to blows over a meal. Their one patron is about to walk out but moments before he does, they declare a truce and deliver the smallest of three courses. They put the plate on the table and immediately start patting themselves on the back. This seems strange to the patron, who thought delivering a starter course was a restaurant’s basic task.

This is the metaphor that comes to mind after leaders in Washington announced they had reached a hard-fought deal to avert a government shutdown. The fighting was rancorous and each side had to exercise restraint, which is rare in Washington. Making choices in a time of large deficits and a fragile economy is hard. Cutting government spending affects real people. It was an accomplishment. But it’s also their job to do these things. Not all accomplishments achieved with heroic effort require heroic praise. Given the economic conditions in the country, it would have been lunacy to shut down the government, which all participants knew. So the voters might be forgiven if they view the self-congratulation with a little curiosity.

In evaluating the moment, though, we have to keep in mind that the politicians in Washington made it far harder for themselves than necessary. Democrats wimped out last year by not passing a budget. They decided making tough choices would have been too political in an election year. The president agreed with this strategy. This year, as members of Congress tried to clean up last year’s unfinished business, conservatives prolonged the process by insisting on too many cuts in too short a time period. House leaders warned their most conservative members that they were in danger of overreading their mandate from the last election. Republicans hadn’t won as much as Democrats had lost. Going on a “spending jihad,” as one senior GOP aide put it, would repeat the overreach that undid the Gingrich Congress the last time the GOP was in control.

If John Boehner had more wiggle room from his right flank, the process might not have been brought to the brink. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with the tactical success of the Tea Party position. It’s a classic negotiating ploy. Ask for the moon, act like you’re willing to do anything to get it—including harm yourself and all around you—and the other side will come your way. In the end, Democrats agreed to more cuts than even House GOP leaders had first proposed. House Speaker John Boehner won those concessions from Democrats while also teaching his raucous absolutist members the benefit of taking yes for an answer.

We’re going to see if this strategy works when it comes to the fight over raising the debt ceiling in May and the fight over the larger budget. Paul Ryan, the House budget chairman put out a plan that looks as unworkable and doctrinaire as the spending cuts that Republicans wanted at the start of the budget negotiations that almost caused the shutdown. If Republicans get two-thirds of what they want on the budget, it would be a big success.

Republicans lost on some hot-button issues like defunding Planned Parenthood. In the accounts of the negotiations, the valiant intervention of the president and Joe Biden on that issue was amply represented. Democrats may wonder, though, if removing the most restrictive provision of all the ones Republicans offered was something worth getting that excited about. The president and Harry Reid also protected other Democratic priorities by replacing GOP cuts to education with cuts to defense and other areas Democrats care less about, but the process was a fundamentally defensive one. It was John Boehner’s world, and they were playing in it.

The president didn’t want to get dragged into the funding battle for this year. When he did, he maintained the posture of the reasonable man in the middle helping the two sparring factions come to an agreement. For independent voters who want to see compromise and government trimmed with balance, Obama’s role as benevolent overseer was probably appealing. 

The president has cast himself in a slightly different role for the larger budget fight to come. He has already taken sides. In the State of the Union and in a series of speeches in the last several months, he has made the case for balancing the need for deficit reduction against the need for investments in education and infrastructure and energy innovation. When Obama was criticized for not engaging in the budget fight that just ended, his aides said he was saving his powder for the one to come. Now it’s here. The landscape has changed now. Will Obama manage a process driven by the House of Representatives as he did in this case, or will a larger process call for a larger public role from the president?

The best that can be said for the dramatic near-shutdown is that it’s the best that can be expected as politicians switch from the easier task of giving voters things to the harder one of taking them away. Compromise in a time of political extremes is also encouraging. But all the bickering left little time or public oxygen for the larger issues that might have been debated about the underlying economic and moral benefits of the cuts being made. If this process is replicated for the remaining courses in the meal, the product that winds up before the voters might not be something they can stomach.

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