Debt limit debacle: Who won and who lost? (video)

Congress appears to be on its way toward passing a deal that will end the government shutdown and raise the debt limit, at least until next year. But it's tough to find any winners.

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    Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Senator Cruz said he would not try to block an agreement to avert a threatened Treasury default and reopen the government after a partial, 16-day shutdown.
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It looks like the Twin Peaks Crisis of the government shutdown and threatened Treasury default is really over. It’s always possible that something could jam the process at the last minute but right now the compromise agreement between Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky appears set to clear Congress and reach President Obama’s desk as early as Wednesday evening.

With the end in sight our thoughts have (naturally) turned to who won and who lost as a result of the weeks-long standoff. Here’s a preliminary scorecard that we reserve the right to reconsider.

Winners

None that we can see. White House spokesman Jay Carney said this on Wednesday and it’s quite possible he’s right. The fiscal crisis of fall 2013 has only increased the disregard in which the rest of America holds Washington.

Recommended: Debt ceiling 101: 12 questions about what's going on

The Republican Party’s poll numbers have plunged to record lows, but numbers for Democrats have fallen as well. Mr. Obama’s job approval rating has reached a new low in the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls: 51.4 percent now have an unfavorable opinion of his actions.

Yes, the Senate compromise leaves the GOP with virtually nothing new to show for the shutdown and default crisis. But is that victory for the Democratic Party? Spending levels remain locked at sequester levels, much lower than Democrats would like. The agreement only keeps the government open until Jan. 15 and raises the debt ceiling until Feb. 7. That means it’s possible we’ll be back in the same fight next year.

Democrats think that the recent unpleasantness has at least killed the GOP’s appetite for using the debt limit as leverage in policy disputes. As left-leaning blogger Greg Sargent explains, the theory is that by refusing any meaningful concessions in exchange for a debt limit hike this time, Obama has “driven home that GOP debt ceiling extortion will never be rewarded again.”

Well, we’ll see. First of all, Republicans might object to the word “extortion” here. And political fiscal crises, as much as they seem alike, take place amid subtly different circumstances, so we wouldn’t rule tactics in or out. Remember, the GOP thought Democrats would crack this time, as they did in 2011’s budget battle. But that experience just made the administration all the more determined to hang tough this time.

Losers

(In order of degree, from lower to higher)

President Obama. (See above.) There’s a reason why US chief executives often look like they’re aging prematurely in office.

Ted Cruz. Yes, it’s true that Senator Cruz is now the most famous Texas Republican, surpassing the once and possibly future presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry. Cruz’s semi-filibuster on Obamacare and his urging of House Republicans to stand firm may now have made him president of US conservatives.

But in our view what Cruz has done is make himself a famous politician and potentially wealthy television commentator who will probably never be elected president of the United States.

That’s only partly because he’s been the face of tea party conservatives. That’s an important faction in US electoral politics: tea party adherents or leaners make up 49 percent of the GOP primary electorate, according to a July Pew poll.

No, Cruz’s biggest future problem isn’t that he’s scared Democrats. It’s that he’s irritated establishment Republicans no end. He pushed a shutdown fight they didn’t want, and subsequently lost, while insulting many of them as squishes. On Wednesday he held a press conference off the Senate floor while minority leader McConnell was speaking, which is the Capitol Hill equivalent of a thumb in the eye.

Party still matters when it comes to the nominating process – a lot. It’s the national party workers and elites who shape the rules, direct fundraising, and meet with state party leaders year after year. For all the energy and votes the tea party provides, it was establishment candidate Mitt Romney who won the GOP nod in 2012, and establishment candidate John McCain before that.

Newt Gingrich is a cautionary example here. As speaker he irritated a lot of Republicans, too, and whenever he hit a low spot in the 2012 primaries, there were plenty of establishment Republicans eager to kick him while he was down, on the record.

Cruz “still has the basics of a viable candidate.… But I think it’s extremely likely that he’s in the process of being winnowed out,” writes political scientist Jonathan Bernstein on his “A Plain Blog About Politics.”

John Boehner. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s position has perhaps been irredeemably complicated by the crisis. History will show that the longest government shutdown (to this point) occurred on his watch, and that he got pretty much zip to show for it.

His speakership may now be a shell, as many have opined. But it’s a shell he still holds. The initial reaction from conservatives in the House was that Boehner may have had to cave in the end, but they were grateful he stood by them and fought as long as he did. A fight is what they wanted, and that’s what he gave them. So they’ll continue to support him as speaker, while they turn their ire on McConnell for what they consider his sellout.

That means that Boehner will hold on as the 2014 midterms approach, a speaker in name, but the administration (and Senate) will regard him as somebody unlikely to be able to unify his caucus and produce a deal.

There’s also the counterintuitive theory that Boehner in recent weeks has proven his hidden genius.

In this telling, he had to stand with the conservatives and shut down the government to prove his bona fides. Only then could he maneuver his way to a vote on a debt ceiling bill, while keeping his speaker’s gavel.

“Was John Boehner actually a brilliant leader, the savior of the government, the ender of hostage-taking politics?” asks Slate’s Dave Weigel, rhetorically.

Remember, it’s possible that Boehner was not just placating a small number of conservatives, but faithfully representing the position of a larger caucus that has shifted rightward faster than many observers have realized.

It has even shifted rightward since the last debt ceiling standoff in 2011, according to an interesting analysis by Thad Hall, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, posted at the “Mischiefs of Faction” blog.

Using data that crunches policy positions to calculate the relative ideology of members, Professor Hall shows that, on a scale of 1 to 100, a GOP representative who stood in the exact ideological middle of the caucus in 2011 would today stand about 10 percentage points further left.

“What we see is the general shift in the overall conservatism of the Republican Caucus,” Hall writes. “There is not a spike of Tea Party Republicans on the conservative tail; the Caucus is just more conservative.”

If this is true it would explain a lot about Boehner’s willingness to go as far as he did and the appetite of the House for confrontation in general.

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