No one said lawmaking was pretty. But in the last few days we’ve seen wily veterans (e.g. Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner) figure a path to sanity, sidestepping extremists on both sides and handling their own side like a world-class jockey steering a temperamental 3-year-old horse to the finish line. There are plenty of miffed activists on both sides, but they should breathe deeply and reflect on some critical lessons:
1. The president, sorry to say, is useless in these things. Boehner will never reach a deal, grand or otherwise, with him. Better to pass House bills, try to work it out with the Senate and then call in Biden. It will save everyone a lot of time and aggravation.
2. The intransigent get cut out. The House Republicans who undercut Boehner on Plan B made themselves and him irrelevant in crafting the final fiscal cliff bill. Likewise, Sen. Harry Reid’s stubbornness left him on the sidelines, giving way to Biden, who worked out the deal with McConnell. Having cut themselves out at the $1 million threshold, the House Republicans were then powerless to come up with an alternative to the Senate fiscal cliff bill. Game, set and match to the dealmakers and to those who can see a couple moves ahead.
3. Club for Growth, Heritage Action Network and a slew of other right-wingers who inveighed against a deal lost badly. They can make trouble but not a deal, and this is their great weakness. By contrast, the archenemy of liberal big spenders, Grover Norquist, encouraged Republicans to make the smart deal and protect as many taxpayers as possible. If the House had listened to him on Plan B, the final deal certainly would have been better for conservatives.
4. President Obama is entirely uninterested in real entitlement reform and spending restraint. To achieve anything, the GOP will either have to threaten convincingly to turn off the credit line in the upcoming debt-ceiling fight and/or win the Senate in 2014. Anyone who argued Obama was concerned with fiscal discipline has been made to look like a fool. The challenge is now how to get around the president to obtain fiscal sanity.
5. The Republicans to a large degree got the monkey off their backs by agreeing that taxes will rise on the richest taxpayers. Obama repeatedly accused them of protecting the super-rich at the expense of others; this was proven, definitively I think, to be false. When it comes to entitlement reform the GOP should now be the one urging the rich to pony up more. This underscores the importance of making the GOP the party of entrepreneurs, growth and opportunity, not the defenders of the rich.
6. Liberals have it only partially right about Republicans being “the problem.” There is a faction of the Republicans that certainly opposes reasonable governance, but they are not a majority of the elected officials or the electorate. The sane right and the moderate left should stop insulting each other and figure out how to craft some meaningful compromises. Biden and McConnell vs. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah)!
7. Never underestimate Boehner. He got his legs cut out from him on Plan B. He regrouped and figured out how to let his conference vent and prove to themselves they lacked votes to pass an alternative to the Senate deal. He then steered the House to the only rational choice — approval of the Senate bill. This mix of group psychology and poker playing is why he is in the position he is. Is he the most articulate spokesman for conservatism or the most wonkish Republican? Of course not. But his job is supremely important and he did it well in getting the very best deal he could obtain.
8. The loudest voices do not have the upper hand in government. The screechiest right-wingers and the most strident left-wingers get lots of attention and command much more attention than deserved. Political coverage gets badly skewed by dwelling on these figures. But it is a mistake to conflate Harkin with the entire Democratic Party or Club for Growth with the GOP. For all the damage done to political parties (largely attributable to the scourge of campaign finance reform) they still play a useful role in organizing and moderating the two national parties.
9. Those wary of serious gun-control measures can probably rest easy. I see no Democratic lawmaker capable of pushing through controversial legislation. The White House certainly can’t initiate much of anything. If we have learned anything it is that without Boehner and McConnell nothing gets done.
10. The fiscal cliff vote was a litmus test: Can we govern ourselves? The answer is: Just barely. Let’s hope lawmakers build on this very minimal deal, that in large part simply sets up the next big fight.