There has been so much charged emotion and inflammatory rhetoric flying around in the past month regarding the Debt Ceiling Crisis, that I was concerned people might not recognize a victory if it happened. Sure enough, despite winning a substantial and meaningful victory last night, many conservatives are moaning and complaining about the deal as if they had lost. It’s necessary, therefore, to spell out why this is a win, and what that win means.
First, an admission that this is not a complete victory. There are people upset that we are raising the debt ceiling, that defense budget cuts are being considered along with entitlements, that Social Security and Medicare are not on the table for cuts, and that the democrats did not simply resign and go home. I included that last one, because it’s no less absurd than the idea that controlling one-half of one branch of government gave us control of the situation. Conservatives accomplished a great deal here, if not everything we could want, and it’s extremely foolish to ignore what went right.
Let’s start with what the three parties wanted. First , President Obama. Jay Tea is exactly right that Barack Obama wanted a deal that raised the debt ceiling, went past next year’s election, that won’t be completed until after he’s left the White House, and one that let him brag. The democrats wanted to increase the debt ceiling, raise taxes more than cut spending, and put the blame on any cuts or hardships on republicans. Republicans wanted to avoid default, cut spending, keep the focus on the democrats for causing the mess, and keep their chances viable for holding the House, gaining in the Senate, and winning the White House next year. Note that I did not say that the republicans wanted to keep the debt ceiling where it is, because at this late date most republicans understood this was not possible, and if the U.S. defaulted, the media would certainly blame the republicans, no matter the truth of the matter.
So let’s look at what happened. I will start with President Obama’s statement from last night. Here are what I see as the key parts:
Notice that, right from the start, President Obama admits that this is a deal which Congress worked up, not his own work or plan. I will come back to explain the significance of that, but note it right here, because it’s big.
Spending cuts first. Not as much as we’d like, sure, but spending cuts first, and it’s not conditional on any tax increases. This is an undeniable republican victory.
“I believe that we have to ask the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share by giving up tax breaks and special deductions. Despite what some in my own party have argued, I believe that we need to make some modest adjustments to programs like Medicare to ensure that they’re still around for future generations.”
Now this is normal Obama-speak, but notice that for the first time, his demand to get more money from “the wealthiest” is matched with a concession that the biggest spending programs need to be addressed. No one can seriously expect Barack Obama to pursue genuine reform in Social Security or Medicare, but this statement shows he has been forced to understand that his own spending is unsustainable, even in what Obama would consider an essential program. Notice also that the changes he wants, in the tax code and in restructuring the largest government programs, would begin at the committee level in the House and Senate. It’s an admission, in public no less, that Obama can only ask Congress for things he wants, that while he can obstruct republican efforts and bills, he cannot himself advance anything unless he rebuilds some of the bridges he’s burned.
“That’s why the second part of this agreement is so important. It establishes a bipartisan committee of Congress to report back by November with a proposal to further reduce the deficit, which will then be put before the entire Congress for an up or down vote. In this stage, everything will be on the table.”
This is where Obama admits that he can’t just skate into the campaign mode again. For all his statements that the issue won’t come up again to mess with his reelection campaign, this admission shows that the agreement has more than one step, and Obama is gambling that the public will forget about the crisis in a few months and let him sneak his priorities into the fall debates. The idea that a dozen politicians can work out a back-room deal that Congress will just go along with, in the same year that this crisis boiled up because of the same kind of political chicanery, is laughably naïve.
I agree that there are some republicans who would dislike some of the automatic cuts, but in general conservatives should be comfortable with the fact that cuts will be automatic if agreements cannot be reached before certain dates. This is another point won by our side.
Consider the record of President Obama in presenting any kind of detailed proposal to Congress. And consider how vague the President is on this statement. This is not a leader presenting a bold plan of action, but a generic attempt to regain some relevance in the discussion. That statements reads like many made by Presidents Ford and Carter in similar situations, where they have lost and are lost, and are just hoping to catch a break and be taken seriously because of the office they hold, since their personal leadership skills proved so lacking.
As he begins his conclusion, again President Obama concedes that he did not get what he wanted. This statement, especially if you note the body language used when he presented it, shows clearly that Barack Obama lost this one.
Putting it bluntly, President Obama lost this one. Yes, he got the debt ceiling raised, but the issue will not just go away. In fact, the president’s own statement admits that it’s not even left for the year. The deal made was done without the president’s active participation, and it operates wholly on Congressional authority and control. And while President Obama got to announce the deal, when you look at it closely, you can see how the control has flipped.
Through last week, the democrats chuckled because they held a double veto power. Anything that got through the House could be shot down in the Senate, and if by some chance a deal got through the Senate then President Obama could veto it if it wasn’t acceptable to him. This is why the democrats never even bothered to put a real proposal down on paper; they figured that this would put public pressure and time pressure on the republicans, to eventually give in and let the democrats have what they wanted. But what happened was quite different. Boehner understood both that the public cannot be as easily hoodwinked as in years past, and that time would be a pressure on democrats as the deadline neared. Therefore, Boehner made sure that his plan was published out in the open, so the public could see what the republicans were proposing, while demanding democrats publish their own proposal, which flipped the pressure back onto the democrats, especially as the Senate and White House were faced a take-it-or-leave-it option with time running out. Boehner understood that certain provisions would never be acceptable to democrats, but the democrats never quite grasped that they were never going to get everything they wanted either, and their failure to lay out what they were willing to give up meant that everything was open in theory. In other words, by trying to force the republicans to offer the only plans up for a vote, the democrats inadvertently conceded the scope of submissions to the republicans, and when the republicans were able to submit a plan that most people would accept, it became impossible for the democrats to offer a counter-proposal close to their ideals. Now, President Obama has already said he will accept the deal, putting pressure on the Senate to approve the deal, so that only the House can hold it up or kill it. In other words, presuming the House approves the bill, it will be done after the Senate and Obama has already called the deal ‘done’.
We also, frankly, dodged a few bullets in how things played out. The Balanced Budget Amendment, for example, would have severely damaged the republicans had it been included in the deal. I understand and agree with the basic concept of holding Congress to its word in staying under control, but there would have been three critical flaws in such an amendment as proposed; it would primarily have handed control of the issue to the courts, which is a nightmare waiting to happen (imagine, for example, the precedent of Congress ceding essential authority to another branch of government), it would put pressure on Congress to make deep cuts in spending without considering the effects ahead of time (and let’s not forget that future Congresses could be of any political flavor, so imagine a liberal Congress making deep cuts in defense on the argument that they had no choice but to do so in compliance with the BBA), and there can be no doubt that democrats would use the BBA as a scare weapon in the 2012 elections, since they could and would argue that the amendment had been coerced on the American people. The amendment question is something that must be taken up on its own merit, and if passed and implemented done so plainly as obeying the public will and with broad support, never as something imposed on the nation by just part of the population.
President Obama and the democrats, by the way, have not escaped the issue in next year’s election either. The fact that the deal requires Congressional review of the ‘bipartisan committee’ in November means that as key politicians get rolling on their campaigns, the debt and budget issues will continue to be fresh in voters’ minds. And since unemployment and the economy continue to be the big factors in the election, the fact that Obama the democrats have still not done anything to get out of the way of business, but continue to stand behind policies and programs which caused the damage in the first place, will dog them throughout the campaign. And that clock is also running, by the way: In 1992 the economy began to show clear recovery signs by the spring but the voters did not care and still chased GHW Bush from office. If he means to win re-election, Barack Obama only has about six months to show significant improvement, and he has not even begun the work needed to make that happen.
Also, it should be noted that the democrats have begun to desert Obama in significant numbers. Evidence of that also shows up in what happened this past week. For a long time, democrats played the numbers. Congress has suffered from very poor job approval for quite a while now, but democrats noted Obama’s much higher support; even last week he enjoyed better than 42% support, a level Congress has not seen in memory. But when negotiations began in earnest, the Senate and House leaders began to meet directly, cutting off White House participation. Obama reacted by asking the public to call their Congressemen and Senators, which annoyed Congressional democrats by being lumped in with the republicans. Note also that when Obama made his statement last night, he did so without a single member of the House or Senate alongside him. This was another subtle signal by the democrats that they have decided to run on their own records and voter support, that direct connection to Obama is seen by democrats as a potential liability more than an advantage.
The next thing that proves the deal is a republican victory is John Boehner’s transparency. What I mean is, Boehner did not trust Obama to present the deal as it was actually built, so he had his own presentation ready, to lay out what was actually in the plan. Just as he did all along, Boehner kept the pressure on the democrats by giving details and keeping the message clear.
I need to be clear at this point, again, that the deal is not perfect, that we will have to watch the process and keep pressure on our Representatives and Senators not to get fooled by accounting tricks and spin, and it’s on us to keep the message fresh that the problem was and remains a matter of too much spending, and spending on things Congress should leave alone. But this is a clear victory, all the same. No default, spending cuts only in the deal, it gets looked at again in November and in 2012, no matter what President Obama hopes will happen, and republicans proves they could reach a deal with democrats while staying true to their promises. The democrats tried to play a blame game on the republicans but it fell back on them, and in the process Obama’s personality cult took a harsh blow in support and confidence.
We won. The question now is how we don’t squander that win.