Can Obama Reverse the Republican Surge?

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Senator Ted Cruz telling reporters he would not delay consideration of the agreement to raise the debt limit and end the government shutdown that Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell had just announced, the Capitol, October 16, 2013

The Republican Party may have come off very poorly indeed to a large number of Americans during the October debacle over the shutdown of the government and the debt limit. In more than one poll, the party’s popularity hit record lows, with approval ratings down in the 20s. However, it didn’t take long after the fiasco ended for many observers to note that while the party may have absorbed a political black eye, it was more able to exert power over economic policy than most Americans, even most Washingtonians, realized. As the National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, a keen spectator of the goings-on in the capital, wrote in an October 19 column, while it was true that, at the eleventh hour, the Republicans lost the fight over Obamacare and “surrendered” on every major point of contention between them and Democrats, they still remained in control of the country’s fiscal agenda.

Yes, the price the GOP is paying for Senator Ted Cruz and for the extremist tactics of the Tea Party is and will continue to be real. And yes, we now see an internecine struggle brewing among Republicans, which will likely culminate during the 2016 presidential nominating process and may someday, it’s no longer crazy to believe, split the party in two. And certainly, the fortnight was a humiliating one for House Speaker John Boehner, exposed as probably the weakest House leader in the modern history of the country. But all that said, fiscally, the GOP remains in the driver’s seat. As Hirsh put it:

Indeed, going back to 2010, when the GOP took control of the House, nearly everything has gone more or less the Republicans’ way on fiscal issues—they got the Bush tax cuts locked in (except on the highest earners), government spending reduced, and the sequester imposed.

Despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s efforts to renegotiate the sequester, Obama in effect has conceded he can live with its across-the-board spending levels: In September, the White House announced it would approve a House Republican spending bill that kept the government funded at current levels as long as language that would defund Obamacare was stripped out.1

Of the facts Hirsh cites to support his point, it’s the “sequester” that is decisive. This consists of the mandated, across-the-board spending cuts that were agreed to in August 2011 as part of a deal to avert default then and that were imposed last spring. Republicans, especially Tea Party Republicans, had pushed for these lowered spending levels, and Democrats had resisted them strongly. That deal remains Barack Obama’s nadir as president. Focused on reelection, he and his advisers thought they…

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