By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have declared victory in fending off the fiscal cliff/austerity trap, and there are certainly some things in the agreement that progressives should be pleased about. But we should also understand what Republicans won.
The great Republican triumph of the current negotiation—and whether it came from hard-nosed negotiating or simple capitulation on the White House's part, I'm not sure—is the fact that an end to the debt ceiling was not part of the deal worked out by Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden. Nor, for that matter, was the question of sequestration resolved; instead, it was simply put off for two months. That means we'll be facing not one but two more crises, when we get to do this all over again. And when we do, the conditions will be very different.
On the debt ceiling, President Obama has said that it isn't up for negotiation; it just has to be raised, and that's all there is to it. Republicans, on the other hand, are quite looking forward to the chance to once again threaten to bring about the collapse of the American economy unless they can squeeze some more cuts from the budget. But once we get to that confrontation, most of the leverage the Democrats now have will be gone. Remember that there are two main things Republicans want: They want to keep taxes low on the wealthy, and they want to cut domestic spending. Obama's leverage in the current negotiations came from the fact that if action wasn't taken, all the Bush tax cuts would expire—i.e., there would be a large tax increase, including on the wealthy. Because Republicans really didn't want that to happen, he could force them to accept some of his other priorities, like an extension of unemployment benefits.
But now the tax issue is settled. So when the debt ceiling comes up in a couple of months, there will be nothing Republicans will be afraid of. They'll have no reason to give an inch. And they'll be emboldened by the fact that every time we've had one of these crises, Obama has drawn a bunch of lines in the sand that he eventually backtracked right over.
But what about sequestration, you ask? You may remember that the point of sequestration was that it was supposedly so awful that neither party would want to see it happen. Democrats would recoil at the prospect of domestic budget cuts, while Republicans would do anything to forestall the cuts in military spending. But that was based on a fundamental miscalculation. It's safe to say now that while the Republicans would rather not see those deep cuts to the military, they don't hate that prospect nearly as much as they relish the prospect of extracting more cuts to domestic programs. Maybe they never did.
So the net result of all this is that now that the crisis has been put off for a couple of months, Republicans have nothing more lose and nothing more to fear. But won't they be afraid that they'll get blamed for another hostage crisis? I wouldn't bet on that counting for much. As Bloomberg's Josh Barro points out, for most House Republicans, doing something that is terrible for their country and their party, like forcing an economic crisis, can be perfectly rational for them as individuals. If you're from a safely conservative district (and most of them are), you don't have to fear that in your next election you'll get attacked for irresponsibly damaging the American economy. What you have to fear is a challenge from the right. And a challenger from the right will use a vote in favor of any deal that includes increased revenue to say you went along with Barack Obama's Kenyan socialist tax hikes, just as they'll use a vote in favor of increasing the debt ceiling to say you went along with Barack Obama's Kenyan socialist debt. So even if it brings your party universal condemnation, creating yet another crisis (and voting against ending that crisis) can be the rational thing to do.
That assumes, of course, that you're more concerned about your next election than whether your party looks terrible in the eyes of the public. But many of today's most conservative Republicans don't care all that much about the fortunes of the GOP. They didn't get where they are by toiling away on the lower rungs of the party ladder, patiently working their way up. They see themselves as brave mavericks, bucking the party establishment to promote their ideological agenda. I'm sure that for more than a few of them, a bipartisan chorus of voices screaming, "Are you f-ing crazy???" does nothing but convince them that they're right.
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