GOP's deadly fever: Has their fantasy bubble finally popped?

As a deal comes into focus, Democrats’ hopes rely on Republicans learning their lesson. But have they, really?

By Joan Walsh

Published October 15, 2013 11:46AM (EDT)

John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                                                                                                                      (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

By all reports the Senate is close to a deal to reopen the government and lift the debt ceiling, reopening the government until Jan. 15, hiking the debt-ceiling until sometime in February. Plenty of Democrats are painting it as a big win for the president and his party. I’m not there yet.

President Obama and the Democrats certainly deserve enormous credit for hanging tough as long as they have. In the Senate deal, they “win” a relatively short time frame to have to live with the budget cuts imposed by the awful sequester deal. Republicans “win” a shorter extension of the debt ceiling than Democrats want. Additionally, by most accounts, Republicans would get two smallish tweaks to the Affordable Care Act: a tougher income verification process to make sure people are eligible for subsidies, and a one year suspension of a “reinsurance tax” that unions actually asked for, so you could arguably count that as a win for Democrats.  Senate Democratic sources say they’ve conceded nothing of value, so it’s not a GOP win, while it continues to make clear that Democrats are the party of compromise and negotiation, which helps all Democrats but particularly those from red states.

So far, so good, right? I’m not sure. I worry that granting Republicans even tiny tweaks to the ACA would seem to do what the president and Democratic leaders promised they wouldn’t: reward debt-ceiling/shutdown hostage-taking, however modestly. If such a deal gets through the House in any way – and that is not a given, at all -- trust Speaker John Boehner and other leaders to hype those changes as major concessions. And that’s the point of giving them anything in the first place, I presume.

But I don’t know why we’d assume that the default-denying, Confederate flag-tolerant, flat-earth caucus of the GOP would come away from this experiment in political terrorism chastened. They don’t believe the polls, which are dreadful for them. They are capable of living on bread and water and fantasy, politically. In their Fox News bubble, it’s always sunny in Tea Party land, so if they are forced to suffer this “defeat” – almost certainly with Democratic votes in the House – why would we assume they’d learn their lesson and just go away? I can imagine even Sen. Ted Cruz reassuring the rubes who are writing him checks that he's "won" this round -- and the next round will be even better.

Personally, I assume we’ll be back here again in January and/or February. It seemed to me the reason Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was pushing earlier Monday for a nine-month extension, “compromising” from his earlier demand of a year, was partly to buy more time without crisis, but also to land the next possible debt-ceiling hostage crisis closer to the 2014 election. That made sense to me. But January is close enough for the Tea Party caucus to stay together and double-down, and far enough away, on the other end, from the election for other Republicans to tolerate them, believing they could recover from the poll-number dive that now reliably ensues in time for the midterms. I admire the way Reid and Senate Democrats have driven this deal, so I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve hoped I was wrong about bipartisan deal-making many times in the last few years. And I haven’t been.

Second, I’m worried about the sequester-budget negotiations this sets up. We know Democrats want to restore some/most/all of the domestic spending the ridiculous 2011 “deal” cut from the budget; we also pretty much know the only way they’ll get that is to give on something, and all signs point to so-called entitlements, since the president has repeatedly promised he is willing to make cuts progressives abhor. Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs let loose a really vexing “both sides” are to blame for the lack of a big budget deal on MSNBC Monday, insisting “in order for progressives to get something, they're going to have to give up something."

First of all, “both sides” are only to blame for the 2011 grand bargain deal falling apart if Gibbs’s former boss has repeatedly lied about Boehner walking away from it. If Gibbs wants to tell me Obama would have killed the deal because he was scared of criticism from his left, that would make news. It would also be a lie. Only one side walked away from the (in my opinion) terrible deal Obama was offering.

The Senate deal, if passed by the House, will open the curtain on a new round of budget bargaining. And sadly, the president opened this round by telling CNBC’s John Harwood that he wants to “make sure we are not increasing the income tax rate.” Oddly, he said, because “that is something that was debated during the campaign. That’s now behind us.” I don’t understand what he meant. In 2012 he ran on a restoration of the Clinton-era tax rates for people making more than $250,000 a year – and he won. It would seem that what was "debated during the campaign" wound up with the president winning. But then he and Vice President Joe Biden compromised, in the fiscal cliff deal, and kept the Bush rates up to $450,000.  Maybe they had to. But anyway, who starts a big round of negotiations, especially with a ruthless adversary like today’s GOP, by taking a demand off the table?

So: this deal, if it gets done, averts a near-term catastrophe, and I guess that’s a good thing. But it seems like it only postpones the reckoning with Republican extremism that the country needs. It relies on those extremists learning their lesson from this mess, and I’m not sure there’s any reason to expect that. We may never find out, because there’s no guarantee Boehner lets whatever the Senate agrees to reach the House floor (where “responsible” Democrats, in Nancy Pelosi’s formulation, can bail out Boehner’s “irresponsible” caucus.) Let’s keep our seatbelts fastened.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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