Although both sides claimed victory after agreeing on a 2011 Federal budget minutes before the April 8th deadline, it was a smashing win for Republicans and a huge loss for Democrats. But even while his party went down in flames, President Barack Obama managed to dance away from defeat.
The winners were 800,000 Federal workers who had been notified not to report to work if the President and House Republicans failed to resolve their fiscal differences. Not adding these workers to the 23 million un- and under-employed was a plus for the feeble US economic recovery and for public confidence.
Nonetheless, the biggest winner in the 2011 Budget Dispute was Speaker of the House John Boehner. In his first real test, Boehner held together a fractious Republican caucus and negotiated a budget deal $7 Billon above the $31B he originally proposed.
Boehner used a variation of the “good cop, bad cop” negotiating tactic, playing good cop: I’ll try to do my best with my caucus but you have to understand that some of the new Tea-Party folks refuse to compromise. They promised their constituents $61 Billion in cuts and they’re determined to shut down Washington if they don’t get their way. The Speaker claimed he could not accept any proposal that could not pass the House with only Republican support. Thus, Boehner didn’t have to have all the Tea-Party votes – Republicans have 242 Congressional seats and needed only 218 to pass the budget – and House Dems had no roll to play in the negotiations – they have 193 Congressional seats.
Boehner’s most effective tactic was to attach social-policy riders to the proposed 2011 budget, additional demands that had nothing to do with fiscal issues, but pertained to hot-button conservative topics such as funding EPA and Planned Parenthood. This fit into his good-cop, bad-cop routine: I’d like to negotiate only on fiscal issues but the Tea-Party Representatives insist that I attach these riders. There never was any chance of getting a budget approved with these riders – even if they had passed the Senate, President Obama would have vetoed them – but they served as a stalking-horse for deeper cuts. Boehner got $7 Billion more than he originally proposed by adopting the attitude: the only way my caucus will withdraw the riders is if we make additional cuts.
The only Democrat to emerge from the budget negotiation with positive marks was President Obama who earned them for appearing Presidential, “the only adult in the room.” Obama stayed above the fray and even took partial credit for the outcome, declaring it, "the biggest annual spending cut in history."
Recent polls have indicated Washington politicians are unpopular, in general, and only President Obama’s rating is positive. However, the President’s support among Independent voters has slipped and he needs this bloc to garner a second term. Obama’s stance in the 2011 Budget Crisis is likely to bolster his standing among Independents who didn’t want the government to be shut down and dislike the bickering between the two Parties.
Democrats were the big losers in the 2011 budget negotiations. House Democrats were frozen out so it fell to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to carry the Democratic position. (Not to President Obama who took the role of mediator rather than Party leader.) From the onset of the negotiations, Democrats lost control of the message. Reid never questioned whether there should be draconian cuts to government but instead wondered how big they should be. (The $38 Billion in cuts include vital programs; for example, Job Training Programs -$2B, EPA – $1.6B, Community Health Centers -$1.3B, Office of Science -$1.1B, National Institutes of Health -$1B, High Speed Rail -$1B and these are only those cuts above $1 Billion that we know about.) At the end, the Senate Majority Leader took the weak stance: Democrats agreed to enormous program cuts but managed to save the EPA and Planned Parenthood.
The Democratic message should have been: There is not a crisis; the US is not going broke. What’s required is a commonsense tax system where corporations and the rich pay their fair share. Rather than point out that the tax cuts for the rich passed in December amounted to $150B and rescinding them would have solved the supposed fiscal problem the Democratic “message” became: How can we minimize the damage?
The 2011 budget showdown was the first of a series of financial battles between Democrats and Republicans; the next will be over the US debt limit that must be raised before May 16. Given the weak performance of the President and Democrats so far, Liberals should fear the worst is yet to come. Republicans will demand draconian cuts – try to defund Health Care reform and gut Medicare and Medicaid – in return for raising the debt limit.
Will Democrats find their voice? Will Obama lead or will he be content to stand on the sidelines and enhance his “appeal” to Independent voters? Stay tuned.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org