Tea Party won the first skirmish of a long, long fight

Did anyone win in the recently concluded deal that reduced the upward trajectory of federal spending?  In my column for The Week, I argue that Barack Obama certainly was the big loser, having blown an opportunity that he himself cultivated for months to demonstrate leadership.  While the deal doesn’t feel like a win to Tea Party activists at the moment, I argue that they won an important opening skirmish:

Reid gave up on tax hikes, not because he got tired of talking about them, but because there isn’t any appetite for tax hikes on Capitol Hill — thanks to the power and influence of the Tea Party. The cuts mandated in this compromise might be paltry, especially at first, but they represent a step in the right direction. For the first time in perhaps decades, Congress will approach budget shortfalls by looking at where spending can actually be reduced rather than where revenue can be raised.

That is a remarkable paradigm shift, and one worthy of celebration after a decade of exploding deficits from Congresses controlled by both parties. Without the Tea Party, that paradigm shift would never have occurred. Indeed, without the Tea Party and their victorious candidates, the debt-ceiling increase would have been a routine vote noted only by a few bloggers and the back pages of most newspapers.

Understandably, most Tea Party activists see this as business as usual and not the kind of transformative, instant change they envisioned. But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, it will take much more than one vote or one budget to build the kind of limited, fiscally responsible America that these activists desire. The expansion of the federal government has gone on for decades, and it will take many battles and victories, small and large, to reverse it. This is a long journey, and the Tea Party helped push the nation into taking a step in the right direction.

There are two dangers in incremental victories, which are closely related to one another.  The first is that they tend to discourage activists who want big, unmistakable, validating victories.  However, those will only come with big, unmistakable majorities in Congress and a different President in the White House.  Given the relative weight of the Tea Party caucus on Capitol Hill in this Congressional session makes the win here even more remarkable. It’s very important to remember that our political system is heavily weighted against radical change in the short term, and that lasting change takes patience and long-term planning.

The second danger is that the activists will turn on each other and on their nominal allies.  If that happens, they will lose the ability to grow their standing in Congress.  Worse, they will alienate those who want to work towards the same general goals but who may differ on tactics and time lines.  That will bring incremental progress to a halt, while at the same time pushing activists into giving up altogether.  We need to avoid a “Mission Accomplished” mentality, but more importantly recognize that incremental progress is not futile.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the ledger, Barack Obama comes out as the biggest loser in this fight.  I give an explanation for that in my column, but two media reports today confirm this as a consensus position.  First, The Hill takes us inside the negotiations, where John Boehner apparently ordered the President out of negotiations at one point:

GOP aides and lawmakers, speaking on background, portrayed Boehner as the calm negotiator who repeatedly exasperated President Obama.

Boehner last month asked the networks to televise his response to Obama’s address to the nation, a request which infuriated the White House, Republican sources said.

On July 23, they claim, the White House called Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), telling her not to participate on a call with Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Pelosi informed Reid, who declined to participate, and the call was canceled, the Republican sources said. (A Pelosi spokesman could not be reached for comment.)

Later that day, the four leaders met with Obama at the White House. At one point, GOP officials said, the Democratic and Republican leaders asked Obama and his aides to leave the room to let them negotiate.

Reid reneged on the agreement that was reached at that point under pressure from the White House, according to the Hill’s account based on their GOP sources.  Obama had to send Joe Biden into the final negotiations instead.  But it’s not just Republicans who are painting Obama as a bumbling negotiator, as the LA Times reports:

Moreover, many Democrats — including some ordinarily sympathetic to the president — feel part of the problem is of Obama’s own making. …

Given the acrimony and the high-stakes deadline, the impasse posed a severe test of Obama’s negotiating skills. On the fly he sought to improve his relationship with Boehner, inviting the speaker to play a round of golf early in the talks. But White House officials believe that personalities aren’t at the root of congressional paralysis. …

Others are more critical, comparing Obama unfavorably with presidents who made broad use of their executive powers in times of crisis: Harry Truman, who nationalized the steel industry in 1952 in the face of a steel strike, for example, or John F. Kennedy, who denounced steel executives for price increases and threatened them with an antitrust investigation.

“I am just sorely upset that Obama doesn’t seize the moment,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said as the final deal was coming together. “That’s what great presidents do in times of crisis. They exert executive leadership. He went wobbly in the knees.”

The White House apparently hopes that the deal will eventually be popular enough for Obama to benefit, but the problem with that idea is that Obama had nothing to do with the eventual deal.  His only stated demand — higher taxes — got taken off the table more than a week before the compromise.  At the end, Obama ended up accepting a Congressional diktat rather than leading the path to a solution.  Obama ended up as little more than a spectator at his own leadership opportunity, and everyone knows it.