Forgive my use of a coarse metaphor, but I think rather than looking at the familiar "who's up and who's down" discussion of DC politics since the shutdown was averted, we should take a term from, er, adult films: who delivered the money shot?
The basic lesson of shutdown aversion was that everyone got something here (it's a flip-flop!): Republicans got a set of spending reductions that were larger than Democrats initially were willing to accept; and Democrats got elimination of series of "policy riders," most notably stopping attempts to eliminate funds for health services at clinics that also provide abortion services (i.e., the Planned Parenthood defunding).
But if someone looked relaxed and confident and clearly delivering what people wanted... it strikes me that the President made out best.
For once, the President, if no one else, seemed able to govern in the present tense; while others shouted and wailed and bemoaned a possible shutdown as if it were a done deal, the President calmly, and apparently effectively, said "get this done, now." In so doing, he probably just became the President he was meant to be, the one a number of us lefties suspected he's been all along - a Clintonian compromiser, willing to give some things up to see a deal get done.
We can argue, at length, about whether the agreement gave away too much, or the cuts will wreck the economy... but I tend to think that lefties should, for now, be somewhat grateful and impressed: at a time when Democrats seem to have few clear governing principles and no sense of where to go from here, the President had enough leverage to hold Republicans back from their absolute extremes, and avoid a painful, probably crippling government shutdown. If conservatives did as well as some diehards maintain... why did they seem so unenthusiastic and so dismayed by the end result?
And why does it look as though these cuts may be about the best they'll get anytime soon?
From the start of last year, when Democrats failed to coalesce around a set of budget priorities, there's been a realistic sense that something, somewhere, had to give. Government was - and is - spending too much and taking in too little revenue. The economy is in tatters. We live in a "new normal" of highly diminished expectations. The pressure to make cuts and limit spending was considerable.
As much as it's fair to argue that Republicans executed a strategy to block spending bills form passing last year, the reality is that Democrats - with majorities in both houses, and a President who couldn't seem to negotiate in a tough way with them - let opportunities go by and set up the disaster that only grew as the Republican majority in the House got elected and took over.
And for a while, it seemed as though Republicans would, either in one bold step (the $100 billion planned cut in discretionary spending), or by nibbling away on the margins (in a series of stopgap Continuing Resolutions) might manage to hold the spending process hostage indefinitely.
Several things, I think, contributed to the reason why, by the end of last week, Republicans had to relent. One was that John Boehner seems to have made the miscalculation that Nancy Pelosi did, a dangerous assumption about governing in the House, where winnign only with a majority of your own party is acceptable. As polarized as the parties have become, it's this stubborn refusal to craft majorities in creative ways that hamstrung Pelosi (certainly on big items like health reform) and now Boehner.
Another failure was the emergence of the policy riders as a sticking point - once abortion, and not spending was the issue under discussion, Democrats had every reason to play brinksmanship with the possibility of a shutdown. No reasonably feminist Democrat (we are legion) would have blamed party members for shutting everything down to protect women's health.
But finally, the biggest failure was Paul Ryan's huge, enormous, gigantic... um, budget plan.
Touted in terns similar to the biblical apocalypse - or an especially vivid size queen - the "fight over Ryan's budget proposal" for 2012 got billed as somewhere 100 and eleventy million times as dire as the debates over this year's cuts. This had the dual effect of making last week's debate seem minor (and therefore, resolvable) and of making Ryan the story when I suspect he didn't want to be in quite that way (those big ones are always so modest).
We'll probably be debating well into next year not so much Ryan's budget as we will the timing of its release (eek... this metaphor just takes off, doesn't it?) - Republicans did themselves few favors in the long run by releasing an ambitious, sure to be controversial, and highly unrealistic proposal in the midst of a debate whose tone was supposed to be somber, serious, and portentous. Ryan's trip to budgetary fantasy land is many things... but more than anything, it is more entertaining and pie in the sky than finding millions to cut from emergency housing programs.
Ryan's budget, I'm convinced, was meant to be the Republicans money shot... but it was both mistimed and misfired. Not enough ground work was laid out - I'm not sure they ever could have prepared folks for the Medicare proposal, but the actual execution was stunningly slapdash - and more pointedly, Ryan's underlying assumptions were fantastical. It took less than a day for Ryan's proposal to go from "serious and necessary" to "interesting, but absurd."
There's no way - and no reason - Democrats will support anything like the Ryan plan for 2012 and beyond, making his proposal, for all the talk of how brave and big it was, something close to irrelevant. Literally cutting services to the poor and elderly to finance tax cuts for the rich, it's an unsustainable proposal that even confused centrists know violates Democratic principles. Medicare vouchers are an absolute nonstarter. And even the Medicaid block grant proposal, which I feared might get some interest, quickly became a dead issue as well. Though conservatives have tried to dress up the compromise of last Friday night as a decision to go from the small potatoes to the big meat of the budget discussion (it's huge! It's enormous!), what really happened is that overnight, Republican leverage vanished in the shadow of Paul Ryan's giant... misstep. Democrats who were nervously trying to avoid engaging on the right's spending angst realized that Ryan's budget was simply a bridge too far; Americans may want to see spending reduced... but no one wants to Medicare essentially eliminated.
"What Americans want", of course, is the fantasy goal here, and the reality is that as a nation we're not at all clear on what to do next. Spend less money, raise some taxes... there's probably a solution in here somewhere, but the will to make hard choices or painful cuts is, even now, almost nonexistent. In that sense, too, Obama's "take some pain now" decision may well prove prescient: as the reality of the further $39 billion in cuts becomes apparent, many Americans may indeed balk at ambitious plans to cut much more. That could make tax increases (or even, gasp, significant tax reform) more palatable, or at least stave off conservative plans to slash and burn until little is left. It does seem clear, this week, that Republicans will have a much harder time in the coming months making their case for painful mistreatment of people in need as the only way to "balance" federal spending. There are other choices. And people willing to stand for them.
Governing in the present tense, making hard but necessary compromises... I think it's clearer this week that Obama, while still few people's ideal image of leadership, is doing what it takes to make winning a second term all but inevitable, much the way Bill Clinton did in 1995 and 96 - paint the other side as extreme, put some fiscal responsibility in place, talk to the American people, not to Washington's political and media elite (oy... Versailles and sex. What a post!). It's a canny strategy, a savvy set of maneuvers... and it's probably the way to deliver the money shot of future Democratic success. If we can just keep from feeling dirty as a result. Anyobdy got a towel?