Give the architects of the Republican attempt to use the threat of a shutdown to stop ObamaCare funding some credit. They have done what few of us thought was possible only a couple of months ago. In August, even liberals were discussing President Obama’s slide into irrelevancy as he morphed from a re-elected president to a scandal-plagued lame duck. Yet after several months of a weak economy, failed legislative initiatives, domestic scandals and foreign humiliations, the president was able to emerge today and rightly claim victory over conservatives in the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis. In the best humble brag fashion, he claimed no one had won in the shutdown but having worked hard to bring just such a confrontation about for the past two years, it’s obvious that he has emerged as the strongest player in the capital from the political chaos that has just concluded.
It bears repeating that had Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and their friends in the House of Representatives not coaxed House Speaker John Boehner into going along with a strategy that had no chance of succeeding, conservatives could have used the last two weeks highlighting the disastrous ObamaCare rollout. But instead of focusing the country on this classic illustration about the perils of big government, Obama was able to stand before the country today and extol the virtues of government in a way that would have been difficult had not conservatives played right into his hands.
But now that the GOP is picking itself off the floor after their humiliating surrender yesterday, the question remains as to whether the president has regained enough momentum to score some other victories over them in the coming months. It is difficult to gauge exactly how much political capital the president has gotten out of his tough guy approach to the shutdown. But even if we concede that he is certainly a lot stronger than he was two months ago, he is not likely to enjoy another such moment of triumph again. That is, provided that Boehner and the rest of the Republican Party don’t let Cruz anywhere near the driver’s wheel again.
It needs to be remembered that one aspect of the president’s victory speech today was true. There were no true winners in the shutdown because, as the polls consistently showed, everyone in Washington has suffered a decline in popularity including the president and the Democrats. Republicans are, of course, in a worse position than the Democrats as surveys showed that anywhere from 10 to 20 percentage points more people though the GOP deserved more of the blame for the shutdown than the Democrats. But every poll has also showed negative favorability ratings for the President and his party too. Any other president who got only a 37 percent favorable rating (as was the case in one AP poll last week) would be considered to be in a free fall as was the case the last time it happened during George W. Bush’s second term.
The next big fight will be in the budget negotiations that will soon start as Congress begins the slow motion prelude to the next threat of a shutdown or debt ceiling expiration. The president’s “no negotiations” stance during the shutdown was irresponsible and helped precipitate the crisis but it also strengthened his standing with his supporters. After that performance, it is not likely that Republicans can be persuaded to think that he will blink the next time the two parties go to the brink.
But if the GOP can avoid be tagged with threats of shutdowns and defaults, they will remember that talks about reforming entitlements and cutting spending are their strong points. The acceptance of the sequester — which may not be ideal but has illustrated that cutting spending is possible — has shown that they’ve largely won the argument about the need to reduce expenditures and the debt. So long as Cruz and Lee are not allowed to steer the GOP into another ditch, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stand a good chance of gaining a far more favorable resolution of the next budget crisis.
Nor can the president assume he will win on other issues, such as his desire for a comprehensive farm bill boondoggle or even on immigration reform, where he can count on the support of many Republicans. As his failed effort to get gun control legislation through Congress earlier this year showed, the president has no talent for building coalitions or persuading people to compromise. That’s because he is personally allergic to the concept and openly contemptuous of his political foes in a way that makes it impossible for him to win them over even when it might be in their interests to join with him.
Once he lost control of both houses of Congress in 2010 after the public punished the Democrats for the stimulus and ObamaCare, we found out this is a president who can only win when the GOP hands him a victory on a silver platter. Without such aid, he will always falter due to his lack of leadership and decisiveness. And he will continue to be dogged by the ongoing failure of ObamaCare whose negative impact on the economy will soon overshadow the talk about the damage down by the shutdown. Those factors should weigh more heavily in voters’ minds next November than Cruz’s antics, leaving the president even weaker in his final two years in office.
This is a good day for the president and he would be a fool not to try and use it as the launching point for a political counter-offensive aimed at making us forget how miserable the first nine months of 2013 were for him. But unless the Republicans blow themselves up again without much Democratic assistance, this may be as good as it gets until it’s time to pack up and go home.