The debt-ceiling saga (Do we get T-shirts “I survived the debt ceiling crisis of ‘11”?) is replete with warnings about overreach.
First, the deal itself is neither the end of Western civilization as we know it (as the far left and right argue) nor the greatest piece of legislation since the Homestead Act. It doesn’t repeal ObamaCare, solve our entitlement problems, reform the tax code or hobble the federal government. It is modest: We are trimming (unless future Congresses say to forget about the whole thing) up to $3 trillion over 10 years. So those Republicans who claim either this is a great outrage (no debt-ceiling raise!) or who engage in premature chest-thumping are deluding themselves (or trying to delude us). Republicans should be wary of overselling the deal. As Yuval Levin observed, the primary value of the deal may be that “it sets the stage for further successes” for fiscal restraint.
Second, President Obama arguably could have had a better deal from his standpoint at several junctures. He could have had a grander bargain with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had he not thrown in a demand for $400 billion in additional taxes at the last minute. He could have had a deal a week ago Sunday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) presented to him the deal that looked like the first iteration of the Boehner plan. And he could have refrained from giving a speech last Monday, one of the worst of his presidency, which helped mobilize Republicans. (Seeing him tentative and subdued Sunday night was the perfect bookend for conservatives who had fumed when he lectured them last Monday.) Obama is rhetorically aggressive, but operationally weak. In other words, he is an underachiever and either needs to tone down his rhetoric or step up his game.
Third, had the hardest of the conservative hard-liners in the House not roughed up their speaker they might have enhanced their own stature. But the price of deserting Boehner was to send him fishing for votes from others. A a result, some of the loudest objectors (e.g. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan) have revealed their political impotence and irrelevance. Right-wing extremists should remember: Overreach by Obama spurred a conservative reaction; their desire for perpetual conflict and unattainable ends may well spell the flowering of a more modest conservatism.
Fourth, by trying to insert himself at every turn and exaggerate his participation in this deal, Obama needlessly took on full responsibility for the portions of the bill his base despises. Moreover, by including potentially huge Medicare cuts by the committee he has undercut the Mediscare argument for Democrats in 2012.
And fifth, the 2012 Republican presidential candidates who wanted to out-conservative all others came out looking the worse for it. Bill Kristol noted, “Now large numbers of Republican primary voters, and even more independent general election voters, will be wary of supporting a Republican candidate in 2012 if the party looks as if it’s in the grip of an infantile form of conservatism.”
On a final note, those who said our political system was unworkable and inveighed against Washington insiders should take note: In the end three wiley insiders (Boehner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Reid) put together a deal that avoided default and made modest gains in the direction of fiscal sobriety.