A Different Take on the Shutdown

The conventional wisdom regarding the recent government shutdown is that it has been an unmitigated disaster for the Republicans. Peter Beinart has a completely different take  on the matter at the Daily Beast. He states that if this is a Republican defeat, he hopes never to see a Republican victory. If Beinart was a conservative, his column could be dismissed as an attempt to put a good face on a bad situation. Beinart is a liberal, however, so I have to wonder what he is seeing that others are missing.

The news from Washington is all about President Obama’s impending triumph in the government shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. “Boehner Blinks,” declared a recent headline in The Washington Post. “Republicans,” explained ABC’s Jonathan Karl, “are working out the terms of their surrender.”

If this is Republican surrender, I hope I never see Republican victory.

His reasons have to do with the nature of the Republican defeat. If I understand Beinart correctly, what constitutes a defeat for the Republicans in 2013 would have been seen as a victory in 2012, or earlier.

To understand how upside down the current media analysis is, you need to go back a couple of years. In 2011, with Republicans threatening to provoke a debt default, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which cut government spending by $917 billion over 10 years. The agreement also created a congressional “supercommittee” charged with finding additional cuts. If the committee failed to do so, cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over ten years would kick in automatically at the end of 2012, via a process called “sequestration.”

Traditionally in Washington, budget compromises had meant Democrats agreeing to cut domestic spending and Republicans agreeing to raise taxes. But by raising the specter of default, Republicans had changed the equation. In the Budget Control Act, taxes weren’t raised a dime. Democrats compromised by cutting spending and Republicans “compromised” by agreeing not to let America default on its debt and provoke a global financial crisis.

The rest of the column is mostly a discussion of budget negotiations over the past few years so I will skip to the bottom for his main point.

Most of the press is missing this because most of the press is covering the current standoff more as politics than policy. If your basic question is “which party is winning?” then it’s easy to see the Republicans as losing, since they’re the ones suffering in the polls. But the partisan balance of power and the ideological balance of power are two completely different things. The Nixon years were terrible for the Democratic Party but quite good for progressive domestic policy. The Clinton years were, in important ways, the reverse. The promise of the Obama presidency was not merely that he’d bring Democrats back to power. It was that he’d usher in the first era of truly progressive public policy in decades. But the survival of Obamacare notwithstanding, Obama’s impending “victory” in the current standoff moves us further away from, not closer to, that goal.

It’s not just that Obama looks likely to accept the sequester cuts as the basis for future budget negotiations. It’s that while he’s been trying to reopen the government and prevent a debt default, his chances of passing any significant progressive legislation have receded. Despite overwhelming public support, gun control is dead. Comprehensive immigration reform, once considered the politically easy part of Obama’s second term agenda, looks unlikely. And the other items Obama trumpeted in this year’s state of the union address—climate change legislation, infrastructure investment, universal preschool, voting rights protections, a boost to the minimum wage—have been largely forgotten.

Democrats keep holding out hope that losing yet more public support will break the ideological “fever” that grips the Republican Party and help GOP moderates regain power. The problem, as the last few weeks have shown, is that the GOP keeps defining moderation down.

 

I think that Peter Beinart is partly right. It isn’t the GOP that is moving the goalposts. They are having trouble even though the goalposts are moving. It is more a case of the political consensus of many of the American people has been becoming, I hesitate to say conservative, perhaps libertarian is a better description. Whatever label is used, Americans today seem to trust big government and big institutions generally lees than in previous decades and to believe that they should make the choices in their lives, as individuals, not as members of a group. Perhaps this is an aspect of the collapse of the blue social model that Walter Russel Mead talks about.

Consider gun control. Despite what Peter Beinart said, Obama’s gun control proposals were not popular. What is interesting is that his proposals were not nearly as radical as the NRA and others kept stating. About forty years ago, they really would have been seen as common sense legislature. Back then, proposals to outlaw handguns altogether were not unheard of and I don’t believe any state allowed concealed carry. Now, outlawing any gun that civilians are likely to possess is politically difficult and all fifty states now permit concealed carry. A great many Americans believe that Obamacare is an unacceptable step towards Socialism. Yet, the inspiration for the individual mandate and other features came from the conservative Heritage Foundation. They probably were trying to create a free market alternative to a single player plan or out right government control and ownership of the entire healthcare industry. Now the individual mandate is radical and few in Washington are proposing anything like a single player plan.

Seen this way, President Obama is something of an anachronism, proposing policies that might have been accepted years ago but are now out of date. He favors blue model, top down, one size fits all solutions that were a feature of American domestic policy in the industrial age but ill suit our post industrial information age. It is just too bad the Republicans are so bad at taking advantage of this weakness.

To understand how upside down the current media analysis is, you need to go back a couple of years. In 2011, with Republicans threatening to provoke a debt default, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which cut government spending by $917 billion over 10 years. The agreement also created a congressional “supercommittee” charged with finding additional cuts. If the committee failed to do so, cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over ten years would kick in automatically at the end of 2012, via a process called “sequestration.”

Traditionally in Washington, budget compromises had meant Democrats agreeing to cut domestic spending and Republicans agreeing to raise taxes. But by raising the specter of default, Republicans had changed the equation. In the Budget Control Act, taxes weren’t raised a dime. Democrats compromised by cutting spending and Republicans “compromised” by agreeing not to let America default on its debt and provoke a global financial crisis.

Not surprisingly, conservatives liked the deal more than liberals. In the House, Republicans backed it by a margin of almost three to one while Democrats split evenly. “Is this the deal I would have preferred? No,” Obama admitted. By contrast, House Speaker John Boehner boasted, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted.”

Fast forward to the beginning of this year. Despite months of negotiations, the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement, and so this March, automatic sequester cuts kicked in. (In between, Congress did raise some revenue by not extending the Bush tax cuts for individuals making over $400,000 a year). If Democrats disliked the 2011 Budget Control Act, they disliked its bastard stepchild, the sequester, even more. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama calls the sequester cuts: “harsh” and “arbitrary” and warned that they would “devastate priorities like education, energy and medical research” and “cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

 

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