Blame Where It's Due

So far, the response to the debt-ceiling deal announced last night has been as asymmetrical as its contents; the right has been mum, with few Republicans coming out to condemn or praise the agreement. The left, on the other hand, is apoplectic. That’s because the deal – which slashes spending by $1 trillion over the next decade, creates a bipartisan committee tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, and establishes a “trigger” designed to enforce the cuts mandated by the agreement -- seems to be a full-on handout to the right wing of the Republican Party.

Paul Krugman calls the deal “an abject surrender on the part of the president.” Robert Reich says that with this deal, “Democrats and the White House have proven they have little by way of tactics or strategy.” And speaking on behalf of the House Progressive Caucus, Rep. Raul Grivalja, a Democrat from Arizona, condemned the architects of the agreement: “Today we, and everyone we have worked to speak for and fight for, were thrown under the bus.” The progressive anger is focused on Barack Obama. Writing for the Prospect, Robert Kuttner sums up this critique: “President Obama was going to change the tone in Washington-remember? Well, he delivered on that promise. The tone is now one of Democratic capitulation and two-party conservative ideology.”

It’s hard to argue in favor of President Obama’s negotiation tactics. But it’s congressional Republicans, not Obama, who are really responsible for the deal; particularly, the 84 members elected in last year’s anti-Democratic wave. The 112th Congress is one of the most conservative congresses in decades, and from the beginning, its Republican members were eager to shut down the government over federal spending. In January, before taking the gavel, House Speaker John Boehner declared that any increase in the debt limit must be “accompanied by meaningful action by the president and Congress to cut spending and the job-killing spending binge.” Likewise, after a week as House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor explained on Meet the Press that “Republicans are not going to vote for this increase in the debt limit unless there are serious spending cuts and reforms. … That is just the way it is.”

When congressional Republicans threatened to shut down the federal government over spending cuts in the spring, it was clear that this crop of Republicans had no interest in dealing with Barack Obama. It’s safe to say that even without the debt limit as an issue, House Republicans would have forced a standoff on something -- most likely, the fall spending bills for 2012 -- and would have won large concessions to their priorities.

So, last night’s outcome wasn’t the result of poor negotiating on part of the president. As frustrating as it is for liberals, the White House was never in a strong position vis-a-vis congressional Republicans. With poor economic growth and limited political capital, Obama was fighting a rear-guard action against extremists energized by their wins in 2010 and ready to sacrifice the economy to their narrow ideological goals.

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