When you listen to Barack Obama these days, it sometimes seems as though his words are crafted with the intention of driving those who were once his most passionate supporters crazy. So after agreeing under threat of a government shutdown to painful cuts to domestic programs, he goes in front of the cameras and hails "the largest annual spending cut in our history," as though that were a good thing. And before the deal was worked out, Obama said repeatedly that the controversy represented "the usual Washington politics" -- in other words, just some partisan bickering, of which one can assume both parties are equally guilty.
But there is nothing "usual" about the project Republicans have undertaken, as unwilling as the president and many Democrats are to say it out loud. The truth is that we are witnessing something consequential. Two years ago, the GOP adopted a brand of unprecedented procedural radicalism by filibustering any and every piece of legislation in the Senate, and now they have a major lever of power to work with (control of the House). Though Republicans will surely not get everything they want, at the moment, the next two years look like they will be an unbroken string of defeats for Democrats and the things they believe in.
It would have been nice if when announcing the budget deal, President Obama had set aside the politician's natural inclination to declare victory and his own preference for casting himself as the adult who settles things between the squabbling children. He could have said something like this: "The deal we just made is preferable to a government shutdown, which would have been truly disastrous. But nobody should mistake it for anything but the tragedy it is. As a result of the cuts Republicans have forced, people who rely on government services will suffer, and the economy will lose jobs. The Republicans held the government hostage, and we had no choice but to pay the ransom."
Of course, by now we all know that Barack Obama just doesn't talk that way. But considering future budget negotiations, it might help if he started to. In May, we will need to raise the debt ceiling to enable the government to borrow more money, and in the fall, Congress begins work on the 2012 budget. In part because the president has presumed, in line with conservatives, that we ought to be cutting spending, those debates will proceed entirely on Republicans' terms. The only question will be which Democratic priorities, programs, and constituencies will be spared and which will be gutted.
Make no mistake: Each of these coming battles, no matter what their political outcome, will be a defeat for the things progressives believe in. Having extracted their pound of flesh to avoid a government shutdown, House Republicans will demand more, and more, and more. Want to keep the U.S. government from defaulting on its debt, thereby sending the global economy into a crisis? Then you'll have to screw the poor yet again. And we'd like to keep women from being able to get contraception, and stop the EPA from protecting the environment, and make it harder for people to join unions, and repeal regulations on the banks, and cut the Affordable Care Act off at the knees. Want to pass a budget for 2012? Then the question isn't whether the knives will come out, but how deep into your flesh they'll go.
You'll notice that in none of these negotiations will Democrats actually put Republicans on the defensive about anything. At the end of each stage, Obama will surely say, as he did on Friday, that "like any compromise, this required everyone to give ground on issues that were important to them." But the only ground Republicans gave was on the amount of destruction heaped upon the things Democrats hold dear. It wasn't as though Republicans accepted some tax increases for the wealthy, or some increased regulation of polluting industries, or some expansion of health coverage for those who need it. No, their "giving ground" consisted of refraining, just for the moment, from taking away contraception and STD screening for women.
In the first two years of the Obama administration, Democrats were on offense: They reformed health care and the student-loan system, passed stimulus spending, and imposed new regulations on banks, among other things. But now there seems to be nothing they feel capable of doing other than keeping Republicans from undoing things. The question isn't whether they'll retreat, but how far.
When Republicans embarked on their project of procedural radicalism -- filibustering literally every bill of consequence in the Senate, for instance, while in the states their allies introduced bills to cripple unions and make it harder for traditionally Democratic constituencies to vote -- they calculated (correctly) that the political cost would be minimal. Few Americans understand much about the procedures of Congress, and it just seemed to most only like "Washington" can't get things done. Democrats may have been outraged, but the strategy worked; legislation that did pass came only after protracted, painful negotiations, and in the end, Republicans won a smashing victory in the 2010 midterm elections.
And now, as they get down to the substantive work of eviscerating every part of government they can get their hands on -- at least those that serve ordinary people, anyway -- something similar will happen. Their chief budget negotiator, Rep. Paul Ryan, recently came out with their blueprint for the 2012 budget. It abolishes Medicare, slashes Medicaid, and has huge tax cuts for the wealthy. Everywhere he went, Ryan was hailed by the press for being so "serious" and "courageous." When congressional Democrats try to stand up against him, their president will say that the real problem isn't that Republicans are engaged in a radical assault on the government Americans rely on; it's that "Washington politics" is getting in the way of getting things done. Most Americans, paying only marginal attention to national politics, will agree with him. And Republicans, blood dripping from their budget axes, will celebrate.
So Democrats, I'm sorry to say that this will only get worse. We don't yet know how great the damage will be, only that it will be considerable. Every cut Republicans demand, and every one they get, will be aimed at the activities of government Democrats believe in. At every stage, President Obama will say, "Well, it could have been worse." About that he'll be right, but that won't make it any less painful.