Feature

Obama vs. the GOP: Who won the shutdown showdown?

Republican House Speaker John Boehner struck an 11th-hour deal with the White House to cut the budget by $39 billion, the largest spending cut in recent memory.

The Tea Party just scored its “first victory,” said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. After a dramatic standoff with Democrats over the 2011 federal budget, Republican House Speaker John Boehner last week struck an 11th-hour deal with the White House to cut the budget by $39 billion, the largest spending cut in recent memory. True, this was less than the $100 billion that the GOP’s Tea Party freshmen were after, but it was the best deal Boehner could get them; it avoided a government shutdown for which the GOP would likely have been blamed; and it earned them considerable political momentum for the far more significant looming battles over the debt ceiling and long-term deficit reduction. This was a stinging defeat for Democrats, said Paul Krugman in The New York Times. Obama not only caved in to his “enemies’ narrative”—that government is what ails America—he promptly magnified the damage by praising Congress “for enacting ‘the largest annual spending cut in our history.’” Republicans and Democrats are now battling over divergent visions of the country’s future, and Democrats are being led by a “bland, timid guy who doesn’t stand for anything in particular.”

That’s really not true, said Greg Sargent in WashingtonPost.com. Sensing victory, the GOP introduced a last-minute proposal to defund Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio, and environmental enforcement as part of the budget deal, but Obama and the Democrats would have none of it. This “admirable moment” showed that Democrats “look strong when they fight and refuse to budge.” But the fact of the matter is that the Tea Party’s rise has shifted “the ‘center’ way over to the right.” Obama now fears being portrayed as a big-spending liberal more than anything, and his advisers believe “his best route to re-election is to acknowledge the need for more fiscal discipline.” That’s disappointing to his liberal base, said Howard Kurtz in TheDailyBeast.com, but the White House is thinking only of the independents and moderates whose votes will decide the next election. Obama’s goal in this budget battle was not to win, but to look like the only “grown-up on the playground”—a reasonable pragmatist “steering a middle course between unyielding partisans.”

The whole battle looked like “junior high” to me, said Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. The game of government-shutdown chicken only came about because Democrats didn’t have the guts to defend their spending priorities and pass a 2011 budget last year, just before the midterm elections. That was “a gross dereliction of duty.” Meanwhile, many Republicans were willing and even eager to jeopardize the nation’s economic recovery by shutting down the government. It’s terrifying that these “self-absorbed, reckless children” are our elected leaders, and that they must now work together to solve the long-term budget crisis.

It’s not so dire as all that, said Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. In the end, a shutdown was only averted because both sides came to understand that “a deadlock hurts everybody.” Polling showed that the independent voters strongly opposed a government shutdown and wanted the two parties to reach an agreement. Democrats are now resigned to the fact of spending cuts in future years, while Republicans are starting to see the political benefits of moderation and compromise. Politicians who are paying attention “to voters’ reactions to their squabbles,” in other words, may now “feel more pressure to find their way to the middle.”

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