Senate leaders reached an agreement on averting default and ending the government shutdown Wednesday, and by today that agreement may well have skated successfully past intransigent Republicans in the House. But even if Republicans receive most of the blame for the debt and budget fiasco, in many ways they got what they wanted.
Think about all the things that remained blocked and undone as tea party conservatives tied Congress in knots. By paralyzing government, conservatives have prevented Congress from acting on immigration reform. Congress has failed to take another crack at gun safety legislation. Any meaningful reform of the tax code remains at a standstill.
They say the best defense is a good offense. Last winter, after a decisive victory by President Obama and congressional Democrats in the 2012 elections, the Republican Party was on the defensive. But by instigating continuous debt and budget crises, the Republicans have seized the offensive, waging a war on government itself and forcing Democrats to focus their attention not on laws that would move the country forward, but on averting the kind of disaster that would plunge the country and world into a new recession.
Remember the Obama agenda? It languishes in the wings while on stage Republicans in Congress engage in the foolish charade, over and over again, about whether the government should do its job. It is a minority of the House of Representatives that has coerced the rest of the government to engage in this wasteful process, thwarting what might be thought of as the reasonable conduct of business.
Some Republicans now acknowledge that the attempt to crush or delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act was a waste of time. It was never going to happen, they say.
They say that now. But why did they not stand up to the tea party zealots who sought to use the issue to score political points and get their names in the headlines? Republicans let fellow Republicans hijack the agenda because they were afraid, and also because they knew that as long as they kept the Democrats off balance and on the defensive, the Democrats were prevented from pushing their own agenda.
As it stands, the Democrats have still not found a way to reverse the arbitrary and damaging budget cuts forced by the so-called sequester earlier this year. Instead, Democrats have struggled to get the national parks open, to get veterans benefits flowing, to get Head Start up and running again. Democrats still have not found a way to win. Rather, they continue to fight not to lose.
It may happen, however, that the Republicans will be the big losers. The public is catching on to the fact that the Republicans are locked in a costly and wasteful pattern of negation. They grasp at the weapons of threatened default and government shutdown because they don’t want to have to compromise or cooperate. Extremists within the party have concluded that compromise or cooperation amounts to defeat.
It is likely that the public as a whole thinks differently. The grand bargain that looms like an enticing mirage on the horizon is something that the people would probably support. Reasonable fixes to Medicare and Social Security, combined with higher taxes and government spending for education, infrastructure, energy innovation and research, are not a radical plot. They are a middle-of-the-road agenda. It is an agenda that gets little attention as long as the tea party keeps the nation teetering on the edge of default.
The latest emergency fix pushes the budget and debt ceiling question back until this winter, when the entire process will begin again. That is a meager victory for Democrats. Real victory will come when they are able to convince the public that this entire process is a wasteful diversion from the business of responsible government and that the people need to send to Congress members who will reject the tea party’s brand of ideological zealotry.
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