If there's one thing just about everyone can agree on, it's that the Republicans lost this fight—and badly. They surrendered on every point, except for a minor antifraud measure that will not alter the course of the Obamacare juggernaut by an inch. They are in such political disarray that even though John Boehner will almost certainly survive as speaker, he's so thoroughly lost control of his caucus that there is, effectively, no one running the House anyway. All in all, the Great Shutdown Showdown was "a dead end for the GOP," ran the headline of a gleefully funereal postmortem by The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, summing up the conventional wisdom in Washington.
When it comes to policy, it is still the Republicans—that is, the tea party, the GOP's new beating heart—who are still largely setting the agenda. That's not about to change. They lost on Obamacare, true enough, and except for a hard-core sub-minority of the tea-party faction, it's unlikely Republicans will be stupid enough to try to wage that futile fight again. But even with this political setback, the tea partiers have made the sequester and debt-ceiling fights the new normal in Washington, as we will find out again in just a few months when the next deadline is reached.
Indeed, going back to 2010, when the GOP took control of the House, nearly everything has gone or more less the Republicans' way on fiscal issues—they got the Bush tax cuts locked in (except on the highest earners), government spending reduced, and the sequester imposed. Despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's efforts to renegotiate the sequester, Obama in effect has conceded he can live with its across-the-board spending levels: In September, the White House announced it would approve a House Republican spending bill that kept the government funded at current levels as long as language that would defund Obamacare was stripped out.
In a longer time frame, all this must be counted as a victory. Increasingly, the tea party is looking like the Bolsheviks to Boehner's Mensheviks, with the Democrats playing the role of the wobbly czarist regime (despite Obama's show of toughness this time around). And if you recall, the Bolsheviks—the most zealous, no-compromise revolutionaries, in other words—were the ones who gained the power in the end. What of the polls and the 2014 election? That's another reason Democrats are declaring victory, of course. Some are even deliriously sensing a possible takeover of the House. But that's highly unlikely either, along with the much-hoped-for disappearance of the tea party. Remember: The tea-party adherents in the House just don't care about the polls. At home, in their scarlet-red districts, they're still beloved. The only thing most of them worry about is whether they are far-right enough to survive a primary challenge. And as long as the current gerrymandered congressional map remains in place, that's probably all they're going to have to worry about.
If you're having a hard time buying this argument, let's take stock. The Democrats are declaring victory for two reasons. First, they followed a remarkably disciplined strategy that had the president and Reid looking like conjoined twins, both insisting they wouldn't negotiate until "the government opens and pays its bills." They got most of what they wanted, in what must be counted as a substantial political victory that will enhance the reputations of both men.
Second, once the Republicans lost the Obamacare part of the fight and moved onto spending and sequestration, the Democrats managed to turn back a compromise offered by GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine that would have extended a continuing resolution on funding the government to March 2014. The Democrats wanted, and got, a shorter time frame, ostensibly so they would be in a better position to renegotiate the second year of sequester cuts, which begin in January.
Still, the Democrats' accounting of their triumphs misses the bigger point. The real fight here was not about the shutdown, as uncomfortable as that was for the hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal employees and for others who rely on government services. It was about the debt ceiling. Some Democrats have likened the tea partiers to terrorists taking the nation hostage. Now they are terrorists who have obtained a weapon of mass destruction. They've discovered they can scare everybody if they threaten to put the nation's entire 237-year reputation on the line. And whether or not Obama will refuse to negotiate again, the next national hostage crisis is not far off, since the debt ceiling has been extended until only Feb. 7. This short window allows Republicans to simply resurrect the battle and to dictate terms, which they'll be able to do as long as they stick to spending rather than quixotic bids to roll back the Affordable Care Act.
The more-reasonable Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, will probably now take the lead on the tea-party agenda, but he is likely to remain their creature. According to the Congressional Research Service, until the House forced the Budget Control Act on Obama back in 2011, Congress had raised the debt limit 5 times since 2001, and in every case it was lifted by a year or more. Now we appear to be doing it every few months. That gives the tea party exactly the instrument it wants to wreak havoc not once, but several times, a year. Nor are Democrats, despite their best hopes, likely to get anywhere in renegotiating the sequester, which slices another $21 billion from the budget in an across-the-board way in 2014.
Want final proof of who's setting the agenda? On Wednesday, as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell began his speech on the dramatic last-minute deal that saved the country's credit (for the moment), CNN and much of the rest of the media cut to … Sen. Ted Cruz, making yet another demagogic speech of his own. That, too, was a tea-party victory.