If you’re a liberal, your view of the just-brokered budget deal hinges on whether or not you think the sequester fight was lost before Patty Murray and Paul Ryan ever broke bread together. If you think the sequester was somehow repeal-able, then you’re going to hate this deal, since it leaves over 90 percent of the cuts in place. If you’d already resigned yourself to the sequester’s crude budget-hacking, then undoing six or eight percent of the carnage may be about the best you could hope for, especially since the cuts the deal voids were among the most painful.
I happen to be in the latter camp—I think Democrats surrendered their last best source of leverage when they caved on the sequester’s FAA cuts back in April, allowing business travelers to breathe a little easier and saving the GOP enormous angst. The Murray-Ryan deal isn’t really about the sequester. It’s a two-year truce on fiscal self-sabotage—and, more to the point, a bet on who benefits from such a truce.
That is, Republicans believe the Obama administration (and really the entire Democratic Party) will collapse under the weight of its irredeemable health care law if we just get through the next two years without a political catastrophe like the recent government shutdown. Democrats believe the economy will pick up momentum and solve a lot of their political problems, not to mention a good chunk of the deficit, if we can just put an end to gratuitous spending cuts while the recovery is still fragile.
So the question becomes: who got the better side of this bet? And that answer to that, I think, is Democrats. For one thing, Republicans are way over-estimating the extent to which Obamacare will be a liability for Democrats. They assume the problems of the first two months will extend indefinitely into the future—that they’re structural (flawed conceit) rather than mechanical (flawed website)—when the evidence suggests implementation is improving by the day. By contrast, the state of the economy is typically the biggest driver of the public mood. If the economy is humming along next fall, the Democrats’ prospects (and those of incumbents generally) could look pretty damn good.
And then there’s the fact that the entire premise of the GOP bet may be horribly wrong. “This agreement makes sure that we don't have a government shutdown scenario in January. It makes sure we don't have another government shutdown scenario in October,” Ryan announced shortly after hammering out the deal. “It makes sure that we don't lurch from crisis to crisis." The first part of that quote is probably right: the deal should take care of the federal budget for the next two years. But the second part—an end to this business of senselessly manufacturing crises—is a huge leap of faith.
Just consider the bellyaching the deal has already inspired. It goes without saying that the usual assortment of activists and lunatics—Heritage Action, Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity—are all condemning the deal in terms befitting a land invasion by some foreign menace (or, you know, Cuba). So is the standard allotment of House conservatives. Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp told Politico that the deal “slides right in the face of what we agreed to 11 months ago—that we were never going to give up the sequester.” Meanwhile, conservative wannabes see an opportunity to establish their cred, as when Marco Rubio mournfully observed that the deal, which implicates less than a percentage point of the federal budget, would “make it harder for Americans to achieve the American dream.” So tragic.
Are these opponents strong enough to kill the deal? Highly unlikely. Indeed, the House leadership is feeling confident enough that John Boehner uncharacteristically took after the conservative backbiters in a press conference Wednesday. "They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals," he fumed. "This is ridiculous."
But derailing the deal isn’t really the point, and a failure to derail it wouldn’t really be a setback for conservatives. If you look back over the last few years, conservatives have exercised their influence by collecting grievances when they lose and then leveraging them into internal victories when the timing is more favorable. Early this year, for example, conservatives agreed to put off a showdown on the debt limit when the House GOP leadership, exhausted by the party’s 2012 defeat and then again by the fiscal-cliff negotiations at the end of that year, advised a more conciliatory approach. Conservatives went along, having been mildly chastened by the failure of their hardball tactics during the fiscal cliff. But they let it be known that they weren’t happy about it. And they pointed back to this surrender when they insisted on forcing a government shutdown this October.
As it happens, much of the last few years have followed a similar pattern: maximalist conservative demands followed by a temporary retreat when the demands backfire, followed a renewal of maximalist demands, except with the previous retreat as a rallying cry.
This time around, conservatives are making their litany of grievances are well-known, presumably so they can parlay them into another crazy confrontation down the road. In addition to all the pro forma denunciations by the jihadis at Heritage and Koch Inc., conservatives immediately circulated a memo on Capitol Hill cataloguing the deal’s many heresies, including “the deficit increases under the Ryan/Murray plan for at least the next 3 years” and “savings during the BCA period come predominately from fee/revenue increases rather than lower spending. So, it … enables a larger government.” What are the chances these points get made in a House GOP caucus meeting some time in January or February, not long before the debt ceiling must be raised again? What are the chances that, when the points are raised, conservatives will agitate for another showdown with Obama? I’d say pretty high. Especially when you recall that the GOP leadership itself spent most of the summer trying to persuade conservatives to skip a shutdown and settle for a debt-ceiling fight instead.
Over time, I suspect, more and more Republicans will tire of these tactics as they further isolate the party, and so the confrontations should become less destructive. (At least to the country if not the GOP.) But, contrary to Ryan’s blithe assurances, there will be plenty of chances for conservatives to instigate a fiscal crisis in the next two years, and many seem intent on seizing them. That means the one thing Republicans thought they were buying themselves with the Ryan deal—stability—maybe as elusive as the mythical grand bargain.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber.