The five biggest takeaways this week from the budget and debt ceiling standoff

October 18, 2013

What a difference a week makes.

The government is no longer shut down and the nation is no longer at risk of defaulting on its obligations. Rewind to a week ago, and the picture looked very different, with Republicans and Democrats at an impasse over the budget and debt.

But Washington found its way out of the standoff at the 11th hour during a very revealing week that spoke volumes about the current state of politics. Below are five biggest things we learned from the fiscal battle that has came to an end -- for now, at least -- Wednesday night.

1. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) still has a huge amount of power. Boehner may not have much control over his party’s base or even much of his own conference, but all it took to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling was for him to allow a vote. Even though a majority of House Republicans opposed the bill -- making it generally a no-no for a speaker to allow such a vote under the “Hastert Rule” -- the conservative wing of his party has largely held its fire, perhaps recognizing that alienating Boehner could do more harm than good if he suddenly decides to dispatch the Hastert Rule altogether. Boehner may not control his party, but he still controls what gets a vote in the House, and that is massive these days -- considering House Democrats can pass lots of things (an immigration bill, for one) with moderate Republicans.

2. Sometimes crises are necessary -- politically speaking. Had Boehner allowed a vote on a similar piece of legislation two weeks ago, there would undoubtedly have been something of a mutiny against his speakership. But with the shutdown two weeks old and the debt ceiling deadline fast approaching, Boehner suddenly had more latitude to do what he did. President Obama likes to decry “governing by crisis,” but there is a case to be made that the GOP establishment needed to let the tea partiers have their crisis so that they could see if Democrats would blink -- and, by extension, that it might stop doing things that hurt the party’s chances of winning back the presidency.

3. Where there are losers, there are always winners. Obama and Boehner like to talk about how this “isn’t some damn game” (Boehner) and “there are no winners” in this situation (Obama). But both men also have acknowledged -- not in so many words -- that Democrats won this round. Boehner said Wednesday that “we just didn’t win.” And Obama, after declaring that there weren’t any winners on Thursday, implored Republicans to win elections if they want to win legislative battles -- the implication being that they lost this time. Neither said explicitly that Democrats won, but in American politics, two major parties control 533 of 535 seats in Congress (with two independent senators caucusing with Democrats), which means one party’s loss is indeed another party’s gain. Whether the shutdown actually hurts the GOP and helps Democrats in 2014, of course, is yet to be seen. But polling on the so-called “generic ballot” suggests Democrats have certainly gained an edge.

4. The Republican Party increasingly looks like two parties. A Pew poll this week laid bare a worst-case scenario for the GOP -- that their party is, in fact, two parties riding under the same banner (at least for now). Case in point: Republicans who back the tea party view Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) favorably by a 74-8 margin, but among all other Republicans, views of Cruz are 25 percent favorable and 31 percent unfavorable. That’s a massive split, as it’s very rare that any segment of one party views one of their own more negatively than positively. The Pew poll also suggested more moderate Republicans are tiring of the tea party. None of this is to say the GOP is going to split in two, but it’s clear there are two wings of the party that are on hugely different pages right now.

5. Cruz isn't all that interested in becoming president. Cruz’s big entrée may have won him support among tea partiers, but he showed himself to be wholly uninterested in actually winning a presidential election one day. Polls show Cruz’s personal favorable ratings among all Americans are upside down -- in some cases by a large margin -- and Cruz seems to be fine with that. Two other potential presidential candidates in the Senate -- Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) -- have also crafted very conservative records but have been careful to moderate their tone in a way that Cruz doesn’t. That may win Cruz lots of supporters in a GOP presidential primary and maybe even the nomination, but it’s clear he has no interest in appealing to the broader American electorate.

Fixbits:

An NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll shows Democrat Terry McAuliffe leading Republican Ken Cuccinelli II 46 percent to 38 percent in the Virginia's governor's race.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) is "gravely ill."

Cruz won't rule out another shutdown.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says there will not be another one in January.

Three different conservative groups endorsed Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who is running for the seat held by Sen. Thad Cochran (R).

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had tough words for the Heritage Foundation.

Must-reads: 

"Republicans reassess after shutdown debacle" -- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

"In a crisis, Republicans again turn to Mitch McConnell" -- Paul Kane, Washington Post

"Obama’s Edge Over G.O.P. Is Still Unclear After Victory in Standoff" -- Peter Baker, New York Times

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Chris Cillizza · October 17, 2013