Boehner didn’t cave on the budget deal this weekend, as some feared he would. The prior fears were not by any means inexplicable. Republicans in Washington are speaking mildly rather than trenchantly, and taking slings and arrows from the chattering class. There’s no Terminator-type trash talk coming from them. All the movement and fury seems to be on the Democrats’ side.
And that makes sense, because it’s the Democrats who occupy indefensible ground. Essentially, their position is that if Republicans won’t agree to raising the debt ceiling and raising taxes, the president will use his discretion to default on US government debt after 2 August. They don’t put it that way, of course, but that’s the reality. If Obama defaults on government debt, it will be because he decided to, not because he had to. He could be impeached for making such a decision.
The money will be there to meet out debt obligations; it just won’t be there to do that and continue to pay for all the other activities of the government. Obama could, equally, decide to cut expenditures in wildly unpopular ways like shorting Medicare reimbursements or leaving the troops without their pay, but Democrats in Congress wouldn’t let him get away with that either, any more than Republicans would. The real option after 2 August is to cut expenditures on other operations of the government, including the programs and subsidies that the Obama administration considers its highest priorities.
All of which is why it’s the Democrats who are most alarmed about having to face the choices after 2 August. The GOP position is not a precarious one. It’s a strong and meaningful position, and that’s why Obama and the Democrats are mounting a sustained assault, using every trick in the book to get the GOP to give up the ground it has staked out. Advertently or not, the Republicans have acted according to the strategic maxim of Bismarck’s military genius, Von Moltke the Elder:
A clever military leader will succeed in many cases in choosing defensive positions of such an offensive nature from the strategic point of view that the enemy is compelled to attack us in them.
Why doesn’t the GOP position look more tough and inspiring? For one thing, because our imaginations have been so conditioned to Hollywood productions and the 120-minute movie package that we think victories have to be signaled by the devices of video storytelling, or they aren’t victories.
But in real life, it rarely happens that way. Think back to January and the endless, annoying Cirque du Wisconsin with the runaway Democrats hiding out across the state line in the EconoLodge or wherever it was. There was no Hollywood victory at the end of that sorry episode. Eventually the Democrats just straggled back. On balance, the Wisconsin Republicans have been winning the peace.
But they looked, throughout the pitched confrontation, like a herd of deer caught in the headlights: bemused, a little shell-shocked, a little quizzical. A lot of conservatives wrote them off because they were just a bunch of modern legislator schmoes, doing modern legislature stuff. But while the Democrats and unions are still fighting a vociferous rearguard action, and it ain’t over yet, the momentum has clearly turned to the Republicans’ side.
Consider James Pethokoukis’ reference to Reagan and Reykjavik in 1986 (cited by Ed). Mikhail Gorbachev offered to raise the Reagan ante on strategic arms cuts, the best counteroffer ever presented by a Soviet leader, but Reagan turned it down because Gorbachev’s condition was that Reagan abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative.
This certainly didn’t resonate as a victory at the time. We don’t remember it today, but the Western media proclaimed an atmosphere of civilizational doom after the Reykjavik summit. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an editorial containing the phrase “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” Even many of Reagan’s staunchest supporters wondered if the old man had finally gone round the bend. Reagan was defending territory he had staked out – territory so alarming to the Soviets that it drove them to act, maneuver, change their approach, move off of their position – and to the observers of the time, that looked like disaster.
What we do remember today, however, is that it was Reagan who got what he wanted in the end.
In politics, victory often comes on little cat feet. I won’t be surprised if the way a GOP budget victory looks to the public is a lot like how it looks in Wisconsin today. An interim solution rather than a grand bargain; a sense of tension maintained rather than the catharsis of a satisfying conclusion.
There will be work left to do, but a shift of momentum. An MSM counter-narrative will be retailed relentlessly, on the water-torture principle. Paroxysms of caterwauling will persist from the Democrats and their constituencies. From the GOP, no glory, no stirring speeches, no one-liners. No string crescendo, no pulsating beat. Nothing but a bunch of Republicans looking weary and dithery, like they just stumbled in from a windstorm – but haven’t forgotten what they went out into it for.