Obama’s Capitulation on the Debt Ceiling Marks a New Conservative Era

Thanks to Obama, the right will be the driving political force for years to come, says Michael Tomasky.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Back when George W. Bush and Karl Rove were wrecking the country, my liberal friends and I had many a hearty laugh about Rove’s boast that he was realigning American politics. Yep, we thought, but toward the left! Those hopes seemed vindicated when Barack Obama won the presidency. But just as Bush and Rove helped revive liberalism, it now seems plausible that Obama is ushering in a conservative era. The former did it through rank incompetence, while the latter is simply handing the Republicans the keys to the house and saying, “Take what you want.”

If the Obama/McConnell deal goes through—and it’s still sort of iffy, at least with respect to the House, where Tea Party dead-enders may find common cause with disgusted liberals to doom it—conservative governance will have made several extremely consequential strides, in both the short and long term. Here are four.

First, over the long term, the deal drastically reduces domestic discretionary spending over the next 10 years. Remember, this is just 12 percent of the federal budget to begin with. Within that 12 percent, the amount of money we spend on most domestic programs is small: transportation is .85 percent of the total federal budget, education is 1.15 percent; housing and community development is 1.7 percent, as is environmental spending; and so on for all the other categories of federal spending that in people’s minds add up to the evil “gov’ment.” The notion that we’re drowning in debt and deficits because we spend too much in these areas is absurd.

Second, entitlements are next on the GOP’s list. Take my word for it: The Republicans who will serve on the “super-committee” of 12 senators and House members who’ll be charged with determining the next round of cuts by Thanksgiving are going to aim squarely at entitlements, especially Medicare and Medicaid. Now, entitlements need reform and savings, no doubt about that. If Republicans were interested in a good-faith way in shoring up the programs for the long-term even if it meant, say, that Medicare wouldn’t kick in until age 67 for people now in their 40s, that would be one thing. But in fact, they want to destroy it. And Medicaid’s position is even more precarious. We spend too little on it as it is—the barest minimums for poor people’s health costs, which inevitably result in higher-cost treatments down the road. This December, liberals will be counting on Barack Obama to defend those programs. What a disgrace that that is now a frightening proposition.

Third, and this is most prominent short-term effect, cuts this deep will take many millions out of the economy and help to prevent a rebound (and don’t think the Republicans don’t understand this). The Commerce Department estimated earlier this year that the austerity cuts already agreed to took 1.2 percent out of the 2011 GDP in the first quarter. These cuts will basically ensure that growth stays at anemic levels through the end of the year, if not longer. For self-preservation reasons if nothing else, it’s hard to see why in the world Obama agreed to all this.

Fourth, and this might be the worst thing of all, is the horrible precedent set by the way this whole episode has played out. If he’s reelected, Obama is going to have to go back to Congress to increase the debt limit again three, maybe four more times. Now that he let the Republicans establish the precedent—never pursued by either party in our history, until now—what will they want next time? And the time after that? And after that? Would Democrats do something similar to a Republican president—demand that she or he support dramatic tax increases? That wouldn’t be any more right than the other way around. Of course Democrats, given their different DNA, might well be afraid to do something that...mean—which suggests that this precedent will have extremely conservative impacts on our politics for years to come. As Republicans love to remind us in other contexts, once you give in to hostage-takers’ demands, you embolden them to try for more next time.

This is the lowest moment of Obama’s presidency. It makes Bill Clinton signing of the welfare reform bill of 1996 look like the founding of the Peace Corps. Even the things he supposedly got out of this deal could vaporize. Defense cuts on par with domestic cuts? After the military contractors’ lobbyists get to work? I’ll believe that when I see it. Of course Obama did get one concession: no second debt-ceiling vote until 2013. By which time, if he doesn’t fundamentally change his way of doing business, he may very well be in retirement.