The news from Washington is all about President Obama’s impending triumph in the government shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. “Boehner Blinks,” declared a recent headline in The Washington Post. “Republicans,” explained ABC’s Jonathan Karl, “are working out the terms of their surrender.”
If this is Republican surrender, I hope I never see Republican victory.
To understand how upside down the current media analysis is, you need to go back a couple of years. In 2011, with Republicans threatening to provoke a debt default, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which cut government spending by $917 billion over 10 years. The agreement also created a congressional “supercommittee” charged with finding additional cuts. If the committee failed to do so, cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over ten years would kick in automatically at the end of 2012, via a process called “sequestration.”
Traditionally in Washington, budget compromises had meant Democrats agreeing to cut domestic spending and Republicans agreeing to raise taxes. But by raising the specter of default, Republicans had changed the equation. In the Budget Control Act, taxes weren’t raised a dime. Democrats compromised by cutting spending and Republicans “compromised” by agreeing not to let America default on its debt and provoke a global financial crisis.
Not surprisingly, conservatives liked the deal more than liberals. In the House, Republicans backed it by a margin of almost three to one while Democrats split evenly. “Is this the deal I would have preferred? No,” Obama admitted. By contrast, House Speaker John Boehner boasted, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted.”
Fast forward to the beginning of this year. Despite months of negotiations, the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement, and so this March, automatic sequester cuts kicked in. (In between, Congress did raise some revenue by not extending the Bush tax cuts for individuals making over $400,000 a year). If Democrats disliked the 2011 Budget Control Act, they disliked its bastard stepchild, the sequester, even more. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama calls the sequester cuts: “harsh” and “arbitrary” and warned that they would “devastate priorities like education, energy and medical research” and “cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
Republicans, being less supportive of federal spending on things like “education, energy and medical research,” were more supportive of the sequester. Indeed, as recently as last month, GOP leaders described locking in the sequester cuts—via a “clean” continuing resolution (CR) that extended them into 2014—as a major victory. In a memo to fellow Republicans on September 6, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor boasted that by “signing a CR at sequester levels, the President would be endorsing a level of spending that wipes away all the increases he and Congressional Democrats made while they were in charge and returns us to a pre-2008 level of discretionary spending.”
For their part, Democrats bristled at the prospect of a “clean” CR. Four days after Cantor’s memo, the Democratic-aligned Center for American Progress warned that by extending the sequester, Republicans were “trying to lock these additional spending cuts into place and create a new baseline from which future negotiations must begin.” CAP added that “It’s easy to see why this approach would be attractive to Speaker Boehner; it is much harder to understand why any progressive or centrist would support such an approach.”
Let’s pause for a moment to underscore the point. In early September, a “clean” CR—including sequester cuts—that funded the government into 2014 was considered a Republican victory by both the Republican House Majority Leader and Washington’s most prominent Democratic think tank. Now, just over a month later, the media is describing the exact same deal as Republican “surrender.”
Partly, that’s because of Ted Cruz. Starting last month, as we all know, the Texas Senator—in conjunction with his fellow Tea Partiers in the House—forced GOP leaders to abandon the very “clean” CR proposal they had once championed. The new Republican position became no funding for the government and no increase in the debt ceiling without the defunding (or at least delaying) of Obamacare.
Now that Republicans are backing off those demands, the press is saying they’ve caved. But that’s like saying that the neighborhood bully has caved because after demanding your shoes and bike, he’s once again willing to accept merely your lunch money.
Most of the press is missing this because most of the press is covering the current standoff more as politics than policy. If your basic question is “which party is winning?” then it’s easy to see the Republicans as losing, since they’re the ones suffering in the polls. But the partisan balance of power and the ideological balance of power are two completely different things. The Nixon years were terrible for the Democratic Party but quite good for progressive domestic policy. The Clinton years were, in important ways, the reverse. The promise of the Obama presidency was not merely that he’d bring Democrats back to power. It was that he’d usher in the first era of truly progressive public policy in decades. But the survival of Obamacare notwithstanding, Obama’s impending “victory” in the current standoff moves us further away from, not closer to, that goal.
It’s not just that Obama looks likely to accept the sequester cuts as the basis for future budget negotiations. It’s that while he’s been trying to reopen the government and prevent a debt default, his chances of passing any significant progressive legislation have receded. Despite overwhelming public support, gun control is dead. Comprehensive immigration reform, once considered the politically easy part of Obama’s second term agenda, looks unlikely. And the other items Obama trumpeted in this year’s state of the union address—climate change legislation, infrastructure investment, universal preschool, voting rights protections, a boost to the minimum wage—have been largely forgotten.
Democrats keep holding out hope that losing yet more public support will break the ideological “fever” that grips the Republican Party and help GOP moderates regain power. The problem, as the last few weeks have shown, is that the GOP keeps defining moderation down. For instance, the Washington GOP’s plummeting approval ratings may well boost the presidential prospects of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, just as the Gingrich Congress paved the way for the comparatively moderate George W. Bush. Like Bush, Christie is described as moderate because he has Democratic allies in his home state and because his rhetoric is not as harsh on cultural issues. But in the White House, Bush’s economic policies were hardly moderate. To the contrary, from taxes to social security to regulation, he governed well to the right of Ronald Reagan. Christie likely would as well. As governor, after all, he’s vetoed a hike in the minimum wage, cut the earned income tax credit, vetoed a millionaires’ tax three times and adopted basically the same attitude towards public sector unions as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.
Yet for the next three years, the press will likely describe Christie as “moderate” for the same reason it now describes a “clean” CR as Republican surrender: Because the GOP keeps moving the ideological goalposts and the press keeps playing along.