In the end, after a 16-day shutdown of most non-essential state services, the Republicans had red faces and precious little else to show for their climbdown. The legacy of a reckless battle that brought the US to the edge of debt default will be the image of a deeply, irreconcilably, riven party and confirmation to the world that the country’s much-vaunted democracy is seriously dysfunctional. The bill that will unfreeze spending and allow the government to resume its work between now and January contains only the weakest of financial constraints on Obamacare, the health programme the Republicans were determined to topple.
President Obama held his nerve. The impossible alternative was to sacrifice any chance of governing to a party willing to take the budget hostage to any cause, this time Obamacare, next time any other aspect of spending. Two years ago, when Republicans had also refused to raise the budget ceiling, the president had bought time with an insane automatic budget “sequester” law, deliberately designed by both sides to be so unpalatable that it would serve as a deterrent to failure to compromise. It did not work, and the country is living with the consequences. Not again.
“We’ve got to get out of the habit of governing by crisis,” Obama appealed yesterday, more in hope than expectation, but once again, in the absence of a new mechanism to overcome political deadlock, the paying-for-government can has simply been kicked down the road to January 15th (and February 7th on debt default). Into the pre-mid-term election season, when one might expect Republican pragmatists to begin to assert themselves. Polls suggest the party’s tactics are hurting it.
Hardline Republican Tea Party supporters, however – variously numbered at between 30 and 80 in the party’s 232-strong House contingent – may have been temporarily cowed by the leadership capitulation, but still believe, egged on by ultra-conservative thinktanks, that they can call the shots and insist the battle goes on. Moderates fear they will face deselection by hardliners as the primaries get under way if they speak out against renewed brinkmanship.
Even House Speaker John Boehner had to echo Tea Party defiance in his surrender statement on Wednesday: “Our drive to stop the train wreck that is the president’s health care law will continue ...We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win.” Yet Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had both advised their troops against the strategy.
The out-of-control train is not Obamacare, but a party seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction, driven by a minority of revolutionary extremists like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who would prefer, as they have shown in the last two weeks, to bring the whole edifice down than to give an inch to the imaginary monster that is Obama “socialism”.