A Spine Is a Useful Thing to Have

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

How much damage have the Republicans done to themselves going into the elections of 2014 and 2016? And has President Obama resolved to hang tough, not just in this round, but in the one that follows and the one after that?

The contrived shutdown crisis proved two things. It proved that Republicans are split down the middle between a lunatic, fundamentalist wing that prefers wreckage to governing and a pragmatic wing often allied with Wall Street. And it proved once and for all that being tough in the face of blackmail beats appeasement that only courts more rounds of blackmail.

Business elites applied escalating pressure on the Republicans not to let the United States default on its debt. In the end, 144 House Republicans voted against the measure, and 87 voted for it. That 144, though, exaggerates somewhat the true strength of the Tea Party faction. Some of that vote was a protest against the failure of the Democrats to give anything in return.

For now, public opinion has turned against the Republicans. Whether that shift endures depends in part on what Democrats do.

The crisis will recur this winter. As part of the deal, Congress and the White House have until December 13 to come up with some kind of scheme for budget “reform,” meaning spending cuts, specifically in the big social-insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The enforcement mechanism is the threat of yet another crisis. The deal funds the government only through January 13 and provides the necessary debt authority only through February 7.

This set of deadlines and linkages is Bowles-Simpson and the super-committee and the usual blackmail all over again: put a gun to the government’s head to force cuts in social insurance. 

In the past, President Obama has been an enabler of these rightwing maneuvers because he has backed the idea that we need to rein in “entitlements.” He has already put into his own proposed budget a cut in the annual cost of living adjustment for Social Security, the so-called chain-weighted CPI.

What Obama needs to do now is very simple. He needs to say that we are just not playing these games any longer. Any long-term discussions about revising Social Security and Medicare need to be delinked from threats to shut down the government or to allow America to default on its debt. We need to revert to the normal process of passing budgets.

The fact is that spending has already been cut by roughly $5 trillion over a decade.

Further cuts, as the Congressional Budget Office keeps documenting, would only retard the recovery and further harm needy people.

Obama, in this crisis, has discovered that a spine is a very useful thing to have. He has discovered that when he hangs tough, the latent schisms in the Republican Party break open. He needs to carry that new toughness into December and January, and beyond. His own worst enemy is both his congenital desire to appease and his on- and-off flirtation with cutting social insurance.

If the Democrats do hang tough, the Republicans will cave again. Major figures (and funders on the right—even the Koch Brothers—are rethinking their alliance with rightwing populist fundamentalists who dislike Wall Street almost as much as they dislike government.

Keep the pressure on and the Republican split will only widen. Keep shining a spotlight on the sheer recklessness and unreality of the Tea Party, and the Republicans will lose in both 2014 and 2016.

The real hero of this episode is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In the January “fiscal cliff” crisis, Reid was prepared to hang tough at a time when the expiration of all Bush tax cuts gave Democrats a strong hand. But Obama undercut Reid by sending up Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate a much weaker separate peace.

This time, Reid’s resolution led Obama, and produced a resounding victory both for the country and the Democratic administration. Let’s see whether the lesson carries over into the next round.

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