Republicans Lost the Shutdown Battle, but They’re Winning the Fiscal War

Note to conservatives licking their wounds over the shutdown fight: You’re winning the larger battle over the nation’s fiscal policy.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) pumps his fist after leaving a meeting of House Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 16, 2013.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 19, 2013, 5:47 a.m.

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.

Wrong.

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.

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