That's how you treat a bully!: Democrats win -- and learn a huge lesson

GOP is finally surrendering. But it will try more extortion soon -- and Democrats will have to stand just as strong

Published October 16, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

Harry Reid, Barack Obama                  (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Harry Reid, Barack Obama (AP/Charles Dharapak)

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Democrats shouldn’t spike the football or dance in the end zone once they succeed in lifting the debt ceiling and reopening government, because decorum. Or something. It would be bad taste and it might even make Republicans crazier. That’s a real risk. I would have denied that crazier than this was possible a few months ago, but I’ve learned: Never bet against their capacity for crazy.

Still, part of me disagrees with that assessment, strongly. I think Democrats should do whatever is necessary to make clear to Republicans that this was a political disaster for them, and a genuine disaster for the country, and it should never be tried again. If humiliation would do that, I’m all for it.

On the other hand, it’s a mistake for Democrats, liberals especially, to celebrate this deal – because we can still lose.

Let’s be clear: Republicans got something for their bad behavior: tougher income verification requirements for Affordable Care Act subsidies, and a shorter debt-ceiling hike than Democrats said they wanted. And Republicans gave…nothing. They merely did their jobs and reopened the government and averted a global economic disaster. They put down the gun, and they released the hostage. That’s all.

They’re also getting a promise of formal negotiations over the budget. Now that should happen anyway, so that’s not a big deal. But Democrats have spent the last month on GOP turf: conceding that they must talk about deficit reduction, with pious nods to Saints Simpson and Bowles and now, yuck, Blessed Leon Panetta -- and that they’re open to everything. And most of them mean it.

I just watched Sen. Chuck Schumer tell MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that once this deal is out of the way, Congress will resume budget negotiations, and everything, including so-called “entitlements,” must be on the table. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was a little bit more balanced, insisting Democrats should only look at entitlement cuts in exchange for more revenues from people who can pay more. “Why should Granny pay the price?” without asking the rich to share the sacrifice, Pelosi asked.

But with all due respect to the once (and perhaps future) speaker, who’s been the toughest Democrat over the last five years: The answer is Granny shouldn’t pay any price. When Social Security needs “fixing,” we should lift the cap on income subject to the payroll tax. The chained CPI is a cut and shouldn’t be a first offer, but a last resort.

Likewise, President Obama took a tax rate hike off the table this month in an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood; Congressional Democratic leaders should put it back on the table immediately.

I’ve been impressed by the way Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have kept their caucus together. I’ve also liked seeing new life among Congressional progressives. With the quiet backing of Reid in the Senate, they cleared space for the most progressive likely Fed chair pick, Janet Yellen. They need to make sure that any new budget deal doesn’t start with the president’s budget, which concedes too much to the GOP already.

Maybe Democrats, including the president, feel secure that they can nod to the debt-reduction wise men and promise to do the right thing -- which in the real world is the wrong thing -- because it's a deal they'll never have to deliver on: House Republicans won't give up any revenue to get it. Still, I'm tired of Democrats endorsing what are essentially GOP narratives about the way the world works: Deficit reduction is more important than economic growth or income inequality.

Democrats so often snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It would be a shame if they humbled the GOP this round only to hand them what they want in the next. Everyone’s looking to see whether Republicans learned their lesson from this debacle; we need to make sure Democrats did, too. If they return to their role as “enablers,” in Pelosi’s words, they’re part of the problem.

By Joan Walsh