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October 16, 2013 4:52 PM Two Cheers For the SWAT Team

By Ed Kilgore

Jonathan Chait is right: as the current fiscal crisis abates, we should be discussing not just Republican brinkmanship and haplessness, but a refreshing united Democratic resolution in not giving in to the hostage-takers:

Most of the analysis has focused on the mind-boggling stupidity of Republicans in Congress, who blundered into a debacle that failed in exactly the way they were warned it would. The episode will be retold and fought over for years to come, perfectly emblemizing the party’s internal disorganization, mindless belligerence, and confinement within an ideological echo chamber that sealed out important warnings of failure. A grassroots revolt forced Republicans to shut down the government two weeks before the debt ceiling deadline, serving to weaken the party’s standing at the moment they hoped to hold the default gun to Obama’s head. (It’s possible they lesson they’ll take away from their failure will only be not to shut down the government and threaten default at the same time, requiring another showdown.)
But it also represents a huge Democratic success — or, at least, the closest thing to success that can be attained under the circumstances. Of the Republican Party’s mistakes, the most rational was its assumption that Democrats would ultimately bend. This was not merely their own recycled certainty — “nobody believes that,” a confident Paul Ryan insisted of Obama’s claims he wouldn’t be extorted — but widespread, world-weary conventional wisdom. Democrats would have to pay a ransom. Republicans spent weeks prodding for every weakness. Would Senate Democrats from deep red states be pried away? Would Obama fold in the face of their threat?
Part of what undergirded Democratic unity went beyond a (correct) calculation that it would be dangerous to pay any ransom at all. Democrats seemed to share a genuine moral revulsion at the tactics and audacity of a party that had lost a presidential election by 5 million votes, lost another chance to win a favorable Senate map, and lost the national House vote demanding the winning party give them its way without compromise.

I’d raise three cheers for the SWAT team, but aside from the possibility Chait raises that GOPers will learn the wrong lesson, there’s the concession of sequester-level appropriations that was made early and stayed at least temporarily (until January 15 or an unlikely earlier budget deal) in the final agreement, and the failure—understandable but still troublesome—to find some permanent way of keeping debt default threats from happening (via either a change in the congressional rules for dealing with them or a presidential adoption of one of the various “constitutional options” that Obama has eschewed). Beyond that, I’m not sure I agree Democrats bravely refused to “negotiate with terrorists,” insofar as they did entertain concessions and are entering budget talks under the possible threat of another shutdown or debit limit breach.

More generally, I say a celebration of victory that depends on future better behavior by today’s constitutional-conservative-driven GOP is always going to be a bit risky. There’s a lot going on among our friends on the Right that’s not attributable simply to political miscalculation or strategic and tactical miscues. If and when what the president calls “the fever” finally breaks (and I think it’s going to take at least another major electoral defeat or two), then it will be time to bust out the champagne and boogie.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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