This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Every time House Speaker John Boehner walked into a room to talk debt limits with Barack Obama, he was followed by an invisible crowd with cocked hats and manic smiles.
The tea pot brigade.
“Just between us,” Boehner could say, “I know it makes sense to include some new revenue in the deal. But I’ve got these crazy members who wouldn’t want the richest man in American to kick in an extra dime toward a balanced budget.
“You don’t know what it’s like caucusing with these nuts. There’s no dealing with them. Hell, some of them would squeeze me out of leadership in a heartbeat if they could, and then who would you be dealing with?
“Some of them really would let America go into default rather than raise taxes. And there’s even crazier guys back in their home districts talking about running against them if they cut me any slack.
“I’d love to play ball with you, Mr. President, but that’s the world I have to live in.”
The fact that this was all true made Boehner’s bargaining position impregnable. The tea party controls a small fraction of Congress, but they make up in rigid fanaticism what they lack in numbers.
Obama, Harry Reid and other Democratic leaders knew the people in the cocked hats weren’t about splitting differences and back-room tradeoffs. They were about unconditional surrender. Some were willing to kiss off the nation’s AAA credit rating to get it.
And so on Tuesday, Congress wound up sending the president a debt-limit deal that one leading Democrat called a “Satan sandwich.” Hundreds of billions of spending cuts over the next 10 years, but no tax increases even for the wealthiest people in the country.
More savings are supposed to come from a 12-member congressional supercommittee empowered to hand Congress a non-amendable package of deficit-cutting measures later this year.
Congress will be able to swallow the whole thing or spit the whole thing out, but it will not be able to tinker with it. If it spits the package out, $1.2 trillion in cuts – to defense, education and other discretionary spending – would automatically take force.
Three problems: We don’t know what this “agreement” will do until the 12 plenipotentiaries tell us. Nothing much is done about the deficit in the immediate future. And the $1.2 trillion hammer wouldn’t touch Medicare and other federal middle-class entitlements, which is where the real money is.
It’s a bad deal, but better than watching the U.S. government take a step toward banana republic status. A country that has its act together does not fail to fund its financial obligations; it does not inflict wounds on its own faith and credit.
Wishful thinkers insisted that the tea party didn’t really win this fight by a huge score. They note, for example, that the hardliners never got the balanced budget amendment they were demanding and weren’t able to dictate the terms of the agreement.
But … they linked the once-routine act of raising the debt ceiling into a white-knuckled political showdown – a linkage that may endure. They knocked all new tax proposals off the table. They recalibrated the budget debate, and forced Obama and his allies to play defense at every turn.
That may not be an unconditional victory, but it’s not far short.