Think Democrats Won the Shutdown? Here's Why You're Wrong

Barack Obama laughing in a black suit, white shirt and blue tie

HOSTAGE. The word and all of its drama can be put to bed, we hope. After a gut-wrenching 16 days of fiscal crisis, the case of Tea Party v. United States has reached a conclusion that even from the beginning of the month was better described by another word: predictable.

As the government gets back to work, a sense of relieved equanimity should be the prevailing theme in today’s media accounts of the resolution. Instead, I’m distressed to see the deal being widely represented as a victory for Democrats. This reaction is delusional, small, and potentially damaging.

“If the Republicans try to shutdown the government to press for defunding of Obamacare, they will lose. The public will turn against the Republicans and they will have to cave in under pressure.” These words were written by Washington pollmonger Dick Morris a full month ago, with the shutdown still 10 days away. To say that conventional wisdom expected a Republican capitulation from the moment the shutdown started is to undersell the sheer inevitability of the situation.

The country watched the GOP not so much lurch rightward, but suffer an identity meltdown usually confined to the nation’s teenage bedrooms. But we knew that after the mascara streaks dried and the diaries were shut, the moment would pass and Republicans would rejoin politics.

Democrats have maintained throughout that they were not playing chicken by refusing to entertain the inchoate demands of the Republican faction. Rightly so: It’s hard to argue with President Obama’s refrain (the first time he’s sustained a steady voice on any issue, by my count) that it is irresponsible to legitimize a corps of proto-secessionist rabble rousers under penalty of global economic cataclysm. And yet while that group in the House remained resolute, we always knew there were clearer heads above them. We always knew that in the worst case, John Boehner could assume the role of Speaker of the House instead of Speaker of the Republicans and end the whole saga.

I don’t fault liberal media and Democrats for reveling in all of it this month. Usually it is they who are the disparate caucus facing a hard-bargaining and disciplined opposition. (Blue Dog Democrats, anyone?) Indeed, it took an intra-party crisis within the GOP for them to briefly flip roles. But when the crisis resolved as we knew it would, some on the left squeezed the standoff for every last drop.

“The Republican Surrender,” The New York Times called it. “If Ted Cruz didn’t exist, the Democrats would have to invent him,” grinned Ezra Klein.  It’s true that the Republicans are reeling and the schism developing in their ranks is at an all-time width, but does any of that spell out the kind of defeat that can turn into positive policy advances for the Democrats?

Remember: Such a thing would look like a successful DREAM Act, a consensus on Obamacare, a jobs bill — anything.

The only thing won last night was reinstituting the convention of debating these issues. You know, that precept that democracy requires.

If the shutdown-ending deal was a “victory,” what happened to the hostage narrative? Did Obama “win” it? The Tea Party was trying to drive our collective car into the near-life experience from Fight Club and we finally got hold of the wheel. This is no conquest it’s a resumption of sanity. It’s impossible to maintain that a tactic is beyond the pale only to gloat when it is properly, predictably abandoned. And by the way: Is laughing at the suicide bomber for dropping the detonator the best way to make sure he doesn’t pick it back up?

Luckily for the Democrats feeling their oats, the deal does set up a situation they can “win.” Three months separate us from the next potential for shutdown. In that time it will be the job of the administration and all Congressional leaders to undo the intransigence of recent history and come up with real fiscal solutions. That would be an accomplishment worthy of relishing. Lest we forget what it looks like, the goal of functioning politics is for both sides to be able to share in the agreement, benefits and sacrifices — not this “we got all the concessions” nonsense.

The Democrats in media can’t claim to have won a game played with the ball that Boehner’s caucus took home. Moreover, the claim itself is hypocritical while castigating the Republicans for practicing just that kind of zero-sum politics. The best way for the tactic of rancor and sabotage to be expelled from Washington — aside from the Tea Party being voted out of office — is to embrace the moderate Republican contingent, who themselves are probably feeling victorious for their brand of centrism having prevailed. This is with whom a compromise avoiding the next round of shutdown and sequester may be reached.

Now the clock is set. Game on.