Instant Analysis of Winners and Losers Can Be Deceptive

President Obama speaks about fiscal policy at George Washington University on April 13, 2011 in Washington, DC. President Obama laid out his plan for deficit and debt reduction.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 17, 2013, 4:35 p.m.

The rush is on once again for im­me­di­ate de­clar­a­tions of win­ners and losers after a show­down between the White House and the Con­gress. This time, the con­sensus win­ner is Pres­id­ent Obama and the con­sensus loser is the tea-party wing of the Re­pub­lic­an caucus. Even the staunchly con­ser­vat­ive Breit­bart web­site ran a story Thursday stat­ing, “There is no ques­tion that, from a purely par­tis­an point of view, Obama won.” The re­port asked, “[O]bject­ively, did Obama win a polit­ic­al vic­tory?” Its im­me­di­ate an­swer was, “Yes.”

Oth­er stor­ies have pre­dicted dire times for Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ates in elec­tions 13 months from now and even pro­jec­ted suc­cess for Demo­crats in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race. But be­fore look­ing that far ahead, a look back­ward sug­gests some cau­tion on what Vice Pres­id­ent Spiro Ag­new first dis­paraged as “in­stant ana­lys­is,” par­tic­u­larly on something as neb­u­lous as an agree­ment to kick the spend­ing can down the road.

A look back on the 2011 and 2012 show­downs between the Obama White House and the Cap­it­ol Hill Re­pub­lic­ans shows sim­il­ar un­an­im­ity that the pres­id­ent had clearly bested Speak­er John Boehner and the GOP. Obama had got­ten the Re­pub­lic­ans to agree to changes in the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealth­i­est Amer­ic­ans and had man­aged to get the Re­pub­lic­ans to ac­cept the threat of se­quester cuts in spend­ing pro­grams. Every­body agreed that the Re­pub­lic­ans would nev­er con­sent to im­ple­ment­a­tion of those cuts be­cause they in­cluded un­ac­cept­ably low levels of mil­it­ary spend­ing. In a de­bate with Re­pub­lic­an Mitt Rom­ney in 2012, the pres­id­ent gave voice to the D.C. con­ven­tion­al wis­dom. “The se­quester is not something that I pro­posed. It’s something that Con­gress has pro­posed,” said Obama. “It will not hap­pen.”

Few dis­agreed with him, which is one of the reas­ons he was ad­judged a win­ner in his fights with Con­gress. It was the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom al­most un­til the day the first round of the se­quester cuts went in­to ef­fect.

An­oth­er con­sensus “win­ner” in the past fights was Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden. On Jan. 2 of this year, CNN.com car­ried a story hail­ing his role and sug­gest­ing it could help him be­come pres­id­ent some day. “Biden hasn’t ruled out a run for the White House when Obama’s second term is up,” wrote John Helton of CNN. “And his role in this deal makes a Pres­id­ent Biden be­liev­able.”

But, again, the tide of opin­ion among Demo­crats on Cap­it­ol Hill shif­ted. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, among oth­ers, grew to be­lieve Biden had giv­en up too much. In this latest battle, Re­id made sure that he was do­ing the ne­go­ti­at­ing with Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell. Biden was side­lined.

In­stant pre­dic­tions are also lim­ited be­cause it is hard to ima­gine the many mis­takes politi­cians can make in the fu­ture. CNN cor­rectly cast House Re­pub­lic­ans as losers in the fisc­al-cliff show­down. But they sug­ges­ted the caucus had hit rock bot­tom. “Could their repu­ta­tion get any worse?” Ten months later, after a three-week gov­ern­ment shut­down and a quix­ot­ic charge at Obama­care, the an­swer, sur­pris­ingly, is yes.

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