Democrats, Obama Look Feckless on Budget Deal

Democrats, Obama Look Feckless on Budget Deal

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The deal that averted a government shutdown Friday night is a huge win for House Republicans, for the Tea Party and for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who hung tough to the last possible minute and showed the core of the GOP caucus that he’s got its back, for now. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., told The New York Times that by his math, Republicans got 79 percent of what they wanted. This is a handy barometer for how conservatives feel about their win, and less importantly, another reason to wonder about Ryan’s math. The deal came in around $38 billion, 127 percent of the $30 billion the GOP first asked for. Another way to measure it is to call it 56 percent of the $61 billion the House GOP ultimately demanded. Whatever. Maybe Ryan was counting policy riders, too. No matter how you cut it, Republicans delivered spectacularly on their initial promise to hack away at Washington spending.
Democrats look feckless. The reason this spending fight happened at all was that Democrats failed to pass the 2011 spending bills last year when they had strong majorities in the House and Senate. Now they’re on the losing end of the narrative about why it’s important to cut spending, and they had to retreat repeatedly in the face of House Republicans’ demands for more and more cuts. With bigger fights coming (the debt limit, FY 2012 appropriations, a potential multi-year budget deal, renewal of the Social Security tax cuts), House Republicans have to be thinking, “We can roll these guys.” They’re right. For now, at least.

If there was a Democratic counter-narrative, it was virtually inaudible outside the Capitol. The repeated mantra that slicing substantial money out of federal spending in the midst of a still-fragile recovery was a questionable idea that never got much traction, even when Speaker Boehner gave his Democratic critics a huge gift by saying “so be it” when asked if the GOP cuts would kill jobs. Without the president to amplify the criticism, it petered out. President Obama clearly saw this as a chance to reposition himself in the budget debate.

Liberals must be pining for the Bill Clinton of 1995, who might have pounced on Boehner’s error. During the savage budget fighting that year, two government shutdowns sobered Democrats about the political costs – a cost the current Republicans have not experienced. But back then, Tea Party-like Republicans got Clinton back into the game, and the president was happy to play hardball.

The turning point in the shutdown fights came when Republicans amended their continuing resolution with a perfectly sensible proposal to keep Medicare Part B premiums at 31.5 percent of the program’s cost, instead of letting them drop back to 25 percent, as required by a provision in an earlier law. Everyone knew any eventual budget compromise would require keeping the premium where it was, but tying it to the CR gave Clinton the chance to demagogue the Republicans for insisting on “cutting Medicare” as the price for keeping the government open. “They gave us our line,” said Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos.

Clinton also painted the GOP cuts as extreme. Imagine what a combative Clinton might have said this year about the GOP cuts. “How many people died from eating tainted food last year? Well, folks, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 5,000 Americans died, 325,000 went to the hospital and 76 million of us got sick – including school kids who get salmonella and e coli in their school lunches. Do numbers like those make it sound like we have too many food inspectors? No? I don’t think so, either. So how does it make sense that the Republicans want to cut more than $150 million from the Agriculture Department’s budget for inspections?” Here Clinton might have paused and widened his eyes. “That just sounds craaazy.”

The idea that the cuts might have overachieved evaporated when Obama praised them as “the largest annual spending cut in our history,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called them “historic.” Now both parties own them, though Democrats have a minority share.

The problem for Obama is that unlike Clinton – who fought for and won a real deficit-reduction plan in 1993 -- Obama has talked and talked about the need to get serious about deficit  reduction, but he’s the only major player in the game now without a serious plan. Give him credit – in his first two years in office, he fought and won a health reform plan that was a necessary but as politically toxic as Clinton’s deficit-reduction plan. But you can’t fight something with nothing, so unsurprisingly, Obama will unveil a deficit-reduction plan this week. Stay tuned.

George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.

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