Washington – It's supremely galling. It's unbalanced, unfair and mostly unwise. For President Obama and the Democratic Party, it's a comprehensive defeat. But it's not the end of the world.
The deal struck Sunday to free the U.S. economy from its Republican hostage-takers is impossible for progressives to love. It gets all the big things wrong, starting with the most fundamental: Obama never should have acquiesced in linking a routine hike in the debt ceiling — necessary to pay bills Congress has already incurred — with all the difficult spending questions that should be dealt with in the budget process.
Obama's starting point was a demand for a “clean,” unencumbered bill to raise the ceiling; House Speaker John Boehner said no. What would have happened if Obama refused to budge? We don't know because that's not his style. It would be nice, someday, to find out.
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Once this became a debate about debt reduction and national priorities, it was obvious that budget cuts needed to be matched by new revenue. After all, if you look at historical norms, spending is too high and tax receipts are too low by about the same amount. Obama commandeered the bully pulpit and demanded a “balanced approach” that included revenue. He inveighed against undertaxed “millionaires and billionaires” who fly around in corporate jets. Polls showed that by a considerable margin, the public agreed.
Republicans insisted on budget cuts only, with not a cent of new revenue — and that, ladies and gentlemen, is what they got. There's no way to spin it: Boehner and the GOP won. Obama and the Democrats lost.
This isn't a rout, however. It's a retreat, in relatively good order, that leaves Democrats provisioned for the battles to come.
The White House agreed to $900 billion in budget cuts over 10 years — in the absence of new tax revenue, a galling surrender. But the deal is structured so the slicing and dicing does not really begin until the 2013 fiscal year, which gives the struggling economy some time to find its feet — not as much time as most economists would recommend, but better than nothing.
The cuts exempt Medicaid and other programs for the poor — although there is no provision for extending unemployment benefits, a serious defect. And the cuts do not touch Medicare benefits, which preserves a key Democratic campaign issue: the Republican plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program that would leave seniors at the mercy of the private health insurance market.
Even more significant is that $350 billion of the 10-year cuts — about 40 percent — are in defense spending. Bringing the gargantuan Pentagon budget under control would be a major step toward putting the nation on sounder financial footing. This is the one big conceptual breakthrough that the deal represents: Republicans abandoned the position that defense spending must not be considered “discretionary.” Just like the money we spend on education or infrastructure, it reflects choices.
Through absurdly complicated procedures, the agreement ensures that Obama will not face another fight over the debt ceiling before next year's election. For this, we can all be grateful.
That's pretty much it, in terms of not-so-bad news.
Obama tried, and failed, to shake Republicans out of their fevered dream that the $14.3 trillion national debt can be brought under control with budget cuts only. Indeed, the tea party zealots who cowed the party into rejecting all proposals for new revenue will only feel emboldened, not just in their anti-tax fantasy but in their technique of threatening to wreck the economy if they don't get their way.
The agreement creates a 12-member bipartisan “super committee” of Congress that is supposed to tackle debt reduction broadly, looking not just at further cuts but at increased tax revenue as well — despite Boehner's specious claim that taxes are off the table. No one knows whether this new body will be able to function. If it can't, a “trigger” mechanism starts slashing through the budget like Genghis Khan in a bad mood. This is supposed to be so unthinkable that it frightens everyone into sober rectitude. But I'll go out on a limb and say that nothing is unthinkable anymore.
Overall, this is a bad deal that is made considerably less bad by the way its details are engineered. That's still a long way from good.
Progressives lost this battle. They retain the capacity to win the next one, if they are smarter and tougher. If they fight.