Most of the press is missing this because most of the press is covering the current standoff more as politics than policy. If your basic question is “which party is winning?” then it’s easy to see the Republicans as losing, since they’re the ones suffering in the polls. But the partisan balance of power and the ideological balance of power are two completely different things. The Nixon years were terrible for the Democratic Party but quite good for progressive domestic policy. The Clinton years were, in important ways, the reverse. The promise of the Obama presidency was not merely that he’d bring Democrats back to power. It was that he’d usher in the first era of truly progressive public policy in decades. But the survival of Obamacare notwithstanding, Obama’s impending “victory” in the current standoff moves us further away from, not closer to, that goal.
It’s not just that Obama looks likely to accept the sequester cuts as the basis for future budget negotiations. It’s that while he’s been trying to reopen the government and prevent a debt default, his chances of passing any significant progressive legislation have receded. Despite overwhelming public support, gun control is dead. Comprehensive immigration reform, once considered the politically easy part of Obama’s second term agenda, looks unlikely. And the other items Obama trumpeted in this year’s state of the union address—climate change legislation, infrastructure investment, universal preschool, voting rights protections, a boost to the minimum wage—have been largely forgotten.
Democrats keep holding out hope that losing yet more public support will break the ideological “fever” that grips the Republican Party and help GOP moderates regain power. The problem, as the last few weeks have shown, is that the GOP keeps defining moderation down.