I think it’s silly to try to analyze whether a deal that would reduce the deficit by just $28 billion — over 10 years — is “good” or “bad.” When the stakes are that small, heated arguments over whether it’s a step in the right or wrong direction are like challenging the spot on a one-yard run when it’s third and long and you’re pinned at your own 10-yard line. Who cares? Every inch matters, I guess, but the odds of scoring on the drive will barely change if the spot’s three inches one way or the other. What this deal really is for leadership is the Shutdown Prevention Act of 2013. They’re terrified that if there’s another budget standoff next month and the government goes unfunded again, all of the anti-ObamaCare momentum that the GOP has built up against Democrats right now will disintegrate. Avoiding that is their top priority, so they agreed to swap policy gains for political ones: In return for the GOP agreeing to undo some sequester cuts and accept certain “user fees” (a.k.a. taxes), Democrats agreed to some very modest entitlement savings in the distant future and, more importantly, to funding the government so that Republicans can’t be demagogued during another shutdown.
If you want a more thoughtful take than that, try Yuval Levin, who thinks this was a not-entirely-terrible bargain by Republicans under unfavorable circumstances, or Phil Klein, who thinks it was indeed pretty terrible. Levin’s argument, boiled down, is simple: You’re not going to get anything meaningful done with Democrats in power so make sure at least to avoid a shutdown and bank whatever mandatory spending cuts you can, if only to set a precedent. Klein’s argument is also simple: If it’s setting precedents we’re worried about, how about the precedent of undoing sequester cuts now for vaporous entitlement cuts circa 2022 that might never happen? Fair points in both cases, but again, it’s because the stakes are so small that the deal needs to be analyzed in terms of its symbolic value. E.g., would GOP leaders rather agree to a bad deal on spending that takes the shutdown option away from tea partiers or hold out for a better deal on spending that leaves tea partiers with leverage? Whom do they fear most?
Which raises another question, as framed by Ben Domenech on Twitter this afternoon: If you’re Boehner and you know your base is going to dislike the terms here, why antagonize them by sneering at how “ridiculous” conservative PAC opposition is? Noah Rothman from Mediaite countered that maybe that’s deliberate by Boehner, to signal to independents who have warmed to the GOP in the aftermath of the O-Care meltdown that the party hasn’t been captured by tea partiers. Could be, but the nastier leadership gets, the greater the risk that tea-party conservatives in the House will revolt against the deal. (They already seem to be leaning that way.) That’s not fatal to Boehner — obviously, a bipartisan compromise is designed to pass with Democratic votes too — but some liberals will walk here because of the mandatory spending cuts later. The more upset there is in the GOP caucus, the greater the risk that the whole thing implodes. Where that leaves Boehner — and Paul Ryan — if it does, I don’t know.
Exit question via Matt Lewis: Did the failure of the “defund” effort make this deal possible? You only get one shot at a shutdown, realistically, before centrist Republicans decide they’re not going to be dragged along on another wild ride that risks further damaging the party’s brand. Between their weariness at the thought of another shutdown next month and everyone wanting to get home for Christmas, Boehner will probably have more support than we think.