With days to go before the artificial deadline set for the national debt ceiling to expire, there’s little doubt that Democrats believe the political pendulum has swung in their direction. Polls show them to be the beneficiaries of the disgust felt over the government shutdown and the general dysfunction evident in Washington. But they are just as encouraged by what they not reasonably conclude is division in the ranks of their foes. Republicans still seem split between those who are working to find a way out of the dead end that advocates of the shutdown have steered them into and those who are still insisting that what is needed is more determination to stick to their principles on the debt and ObamaCare while waiting for the Democrats to blink even if it is more likely that hell will freeze over first. President Obama spent the last two years daring the Republicans to shut down the government in the hope that it would be a political disaster for the GOP. Now that he seems to have been proven right, Democrats believe a moment has arrived in which they may not only rout the Tea Party but perhaps alter the dynamic of budget negotiations that have seemed to run against their big government beliefs for the past few years.
That’s what motivated Senator Harry Reid to refuse to accept what might have been considered a Republican surrender offer over the weekend. Rather than accept a so-called clean bill that would reopen the government and lift the current debt ceiling with no conditions as they had been calling for over the last month, Democrats raised the ante in the talks about finding a way out of the current impasse. Now they are demanding a relatively quick end to sequester budget cuts and are refusing even to accept a permanent repeal of the ObamaCare medical device tax, a face-saving measure that would allow the Republicans to act as if they had not been completely defeated.
Reid and the president are hoping Republicans are sufficiently spooked by the prospect of a default to surrender on those humiliating terms. But as strong as their position seems to be today, Democrats are still very much in danger of overplaying their hand. That’s not just because if the nation does slide into economic difficulties as a result of the expiration of the current debt ceiling and the shutdown the administration and its allies will be blamed along with the GOP. But by moving the discussion from what is perceived to be an unreasonable Republican demand to shut down the government if ObamaCare isn’t defunded to one about expanding debt and spending, Democrats are shifting the struggle back onto strong ground for their opponents.
The Republican stand on funding the government is widely seen as being driven by an ideological position on ObamaCare even if the other side is no less ideological in their insistence on preserving the president’s signature health care legislation despite its disastrous rollout and the deleterious impact it will have on the economy. That places them at a real disadvantage so long as the question is finding a way to reopen the government and ensure that the government doesn’t default.
But once the discussion turns, as Reid’s attempt to do away with sequester cuts indicates, to whether Congress will allow the government to go back to the free spending ways that actually got the country into this mess, the Democratic advantage disappears. While the sequester is not the smartest way to cut government spending and has done some damage, especially to national defense, it is not unpopular because the American people have understandably come to the conclusion that it is only by such draconian means that the nation’s spending addiction can be brought under control.
Once we stop arguing about whether the government will continue to operate or whether the national debt will be paid, the question becomes one of whether Washington is capable of reforming the entitlement spending that is sinking the nation in a sea of red ink and reducing the size of government to one that can be paid without increasing the debt. And that is where the Republicans have not only the stronger argument but also the ability to rally a majority to their side.
The question for the Republican Party isn’t really so much whether Senator Ted Cruz and the Tea Party will cause it to crash and burn and loose the 2014 midterms, as it is whether it can keep the national discussion focused on taxes and spending. If, fueled by their belief that the GOP is a rudderless and sinking ship, Obama and Reid choose to try and roll back the sequester cuts and refloat the liberal agenda in the coming weeks and months, what they will be doing is actually reviving the Republicans rather than placing a stake in their hearts. The Democratic moment we are currently experiencing is real but that irresistible liberal temptation is an almost sure guarantee that it will pass.