It's very likely the debt ceiling debate ended yesterday evening, when Mitch McConnell essentially offered to cave on pretty much every Republican talking point in the debate. The Senate Minority Leader offered a convoluted proposal that essentailly guarantees that President can raise the debt ceiling in three increments, without making any spending cuts. That would be the "clean debt limit" bill that Democrats argued for, months ago.
The fact that McConnell caved is not especially curious, or surprising, though the timing caught people off guard. All along, if anyone were paying attention, it's been clear that much of what passed for "negotiations" weren't especially serious. I've been avoiding writing anything about the whole mess because there was so little to say. Until an actual deal was reached, all the posturing and frantic nervousness (we'll lose Medicare! They'll destroy Social Security! Republicans will have to accept tax increases!) on all sides was mostly theater. And frankly, as theater, it was an old, familiar show.
Since the major turnover of the House of Representatives in last year's elections, there's been political storyline about how Republicans are both newly empowered and highy dangerous. The reality that the power is nearly nonexistent, and the danger, it turns out, is that an imploding Republican Party may take out much of our economy and a chunk of our government, if we're no careful. The mistake of the debt limit "negotiation" storyline over the past few months, as it turns out, wasn't all the tired theater of tax avoiding conservatives versus liberal defenders of the social safety net; it's that no one noticed, apparently, that the Republicans weren't really negotiating. Not because, as some suggested, the GOP was willing to end the world rather than riase taxes, but because the Republican Party is in such disarray that a coherent stance on the debt limit, spending, and tax policy was simply beyond their ability.
And, as a result, we get McConnell, proving himself yet again the best self interested politician. McConnell's plan may only save McConnell - and a few Republican Senators seeking reelection - but the timing of his proposal and the collapse of a coherent Republican position on the debt ceiling are the latest lesson in a string of examples that show why the 2012 election is likely to be more of the same: until the Republicans deal with the political scorched Earth left in George W. Bush's wake, there is no real choice in most of American politics.
Yesterday's events brought me bck to the uncomfortable and odd sight after last November's elections - the press appearances by McConnell, Boehner, and Cantor where Boehner's new role as Speaker easily eclipsed McConnell's role from 2008 to 2010 as the de facto head of the GOP. I said to my Mom at the time that it seemed somewhat humiliating to parade McConnell around, when clearly the real work of government would be settled by the President, Harry Reid and Speaker Boehner.
That political dynamic, it now appears, was probably the case until Paul Ryan launched his spectacular, disastrous "budget framework" which both wrecked the new House majority's claim to seriousness (in two words: Medicare Vouchers) opn econoic issues, and revealed the internal cracks to the majority's unity. It's at that moment, I think, that Micth McConnell was able to reassert himself as someone who dealt in political realism. It's not pretty, but separating what's doable from what can't be done is how government works.
This is why I think President Obama is both overrated and underrated as President: too many of the Obama diehards still seem surprised that Obama is a President who is less concerned with idealism and more concerned with results, who is willing to accept some less desirable outcomes in pursuit of larger goals. What's underrated is that the President's cool, somewhat aloof approach to leadership is ideal for contentious, down to the wire negotiations. His "grand bargain" proposal - what we know of it - was, apparently, a bluff meant to force Republicans to either make a deal or wilt... and all they had to do was agree to some tax increases to get big spending cuts, maybe even a rethinking of Medicare and Social Security. You can propose almost anything, if you're pretty sure that your opponents can't accept the terms.
Much has been made this week of Reoublican fealty to Grover Norquist, the antitax lobbyist. I'd put Norquist's apparent level of influence another way: rather than note the fear of Republicans to cross him, I'd ask, how'd we get to a point where an unelected lobbyist can direct Republican policy decisions more than elected Republicans in government? The point is, in a world where the Republican Party was in healthy shape as a political party, Norquist wouldn't be wielding this kind of control. The fact that his influence has such weight is indicative, really, of how deeply imploded the Republican Party is, and how unlikely they are to revive anytme soon.
And, in the end, this really goes back to the failures and failings of George W. Bush and his disastrous Presidency. We are here because, let's recall, Bush picked Dick Cheney, an out of touch, elderly man in failing health as his Vice President, a position normally used to anoint a successor. After the congressional losses of 2006, which were a direct result of Bush's steamroller policies that defied the American will, Bush essentially abdicated his role as a national leader.No Republican was able, or willing, to step into the breach. Bush had reshaped the internal mechanisms of the Party to his own needs (installing his chief political advisor, Karl Rove, in the White House rather than outside of it, appointing at least two successive GOP party chairs whose main quality was loyalty to Bush). And after him, when Bush simply abandoned his position, he left little to rebuild from in his wake.
It's no surprise then, I think, to see what's happened since: the disastrous run of JOhn McCain, the rise of shrill populists like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, a party driven by the contradictory imulses of a fractured base of support, who've turned loyalty tests into a substitute for policy. It's no wonder reasonably credible moderating forces - whether it's Mitt Romney or political realists like McConnell, or other senior Senate voices like Dick Lugar and Olympia Snowe - have been dismissed, ridiculed and marginalized. The miostaken fear that many liberals have of the GOP are based, reallly, on believing the Republicans' own PR spin that the 2010 election represented an exit from the political wilderness caused by the Bush Presidency. The fact is... they're not even close. They're still trying to plant seeds of success in that scorched earth.
I don't know if McConnell's last ditch proposal can pass - on the one hand, there's clearly a large subset of the House majority that will hate it, on the other, a wily operative like McConnell doesn't just float a bullshit idea wondering if it might fly (which is to say, I think he knows a way for this to pass) - but the ppint is, we won't be getting a debt ceiling deal anything like the worst fears of all sides, with debilitating cuts or unpopular tax increases. We might yet default on our debt obligations - the screams of "you can't possibly let that happen" beg, really, for just such a moment - but I get the impression that McConnell's cave is the last gasp of cooler heads prevailing. And what is President Obama, after all, but a cooler head? At the very least, I think Obama can see the scorched Earth. It doesn't make him a great President, but it does seem to be making him into the illusion of a successful one.