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17 March 2018 08:36 (South Africa)

Shutdown/debt ceiling: winners, losers & just plain weirdos

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

Almost everybody in Congress, their staffers as well as White House staffers finally got a decent night’s sleep in Washington on Thursday night. The continuing resolution and increase in the debt ceiling were passed the day before and president Obama signed them shortly after midnight. Still, many were left licking their wounds over the ordeal. J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates who won and who lost in the fight that finally came to an end, for a while, at least.

As the District of Columbia tastes the semblance of normalcy for a first time in weeks, it is time to take stock and identify the winners and losers in this domestic political battle that had threatened to fire off a rocket at the world financial system.

By the time the Congress reached its decision late in the evening of October 16, the Republican Party - despite the goading of its own extremist Tea Party caucus - had essentially surrendered to Barack Obama’s uncompromising defense of his signature health reforms, the successful parliamentary actions in the Senate by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, and a growing public perception that the most of the crisis had been the fault of the Republicans.

As the New York Times’ editorial board summed up the events after the capitulation, “Two years ago, when he was first confronted with the Republican refusal to raise the debt ceiling, Mr Obama blinked and agreed to a budget control law that severely slashed domestic spending and will continue to do so for years through the sequester. Determined not to give in this time, he refused all of the most outrageous demands. The Republicans pushed the nation to the brink of default, and pulled back at the last minute when it was clear the White House would not capitulate.”

In most analysts and commentators’ opinions, one big winner clearly was Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader. Reid became the public face of his party’s refusal to even consider measures that would have resulted in major changes to the president’s already-passed health-care reform package, Obamacare.

Reid held his caucus together tightly in a way not very common for the usually fractious, quarrelsome Democrats. The agreement he achieved with Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (and then in the House as well) ended up being a better agreement than Democrats had expected to achieve at the beginning of the shutdown.

Photo: Richard Doerner, a museum specialist for the U.S. Senate, restarts the historic Ohio Clock outside the Senate floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, October 17, 2013. The clock had stopped during the sixteen-day government shutdown, when the staff members who wind it were furloughed as non-essential staff. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Not in the shutdown or debt ceiling fray directly, but also a big winner in the sweepstakes, is Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie. At this point, Christie is set to glide into a second term as governor in the election next month (in a reliably Democratic state) and he keeps making all the right, but subtle, noises of a man who will be a candidate for president in 2016.

His embrace of the president (and sharp criticism of his own party) last year in the argument over emergency relief funds after Hurricane Sandy seems better and better in light of the recent unpleasantness.

Christie can make the case his party absolutely, positively needs to nominate someone for president who has not been serving in Washington. (Maybe the same argument can be made for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal as well, but Christie is getting most of the attention.)

By the same token as Senator Reid’s win, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell also gets a gold star for demonstrating that when the chips are down, he knows how to make the deal for the nation’s benefit. By opposing the Tea Party faction, it also shows he’s done his sums and believes he has relatively little to risk from the right in any primary challenge for his re-nomination as senior senator from Kentucky.

Curiously, while it has already become conventional wisdom (boy, this moves fast nowadays) that the rollout of Obamacare’s Internet presence for those health insurance exchanges was definitively not a success, these teething problems were pushed right off the front pages and television newscasts because of the shutdown/debt ceiling wrangle.

This gives the administration time to get the thing up and running properly before it becomes the story. This points to the fact that going with a shutdown as strategy, rather than attacking the administration of Obamacare as the key problem was a serious strategic mistake by Republicans. Nevertheless, from now on, the media horde will turn its attention to any miscues in the new program and the cabinet department responsible for it – something that could well affect the next go-round with the federal budget votes when the temporary continuing resolution runs out in January.

Surprisingly, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz gets a nod from some commentators as a winner amidst the whole Republican debacle - even though he was the actual set-up guy for the mess - with his uncompromising stance on Obamacare and his marathon speech at the beginning of the debate in the Senate. Cruz gets into the winner’s circle by virtue of a public posture that has now solidified his status as a cult hero to the Tea Partyers and other conservative activists that are the bulk of Republican primary election voters.

A case in point was his undisputed win in the Values Voter Summit straw poll a week ago. There is also the fact that he has now become a media magnet - they are following him everywhere. None of this will hurt him with primary voters, even if he gets up the noses of his fellow Republican senators.

Rev Barry Black, the Senate chaplain, gets a nod as another unexpected winner. By virtue of his vocal timbre and the reassurance of his prayers at the opening of each Senate session, he is now a minor celebrity, praised by Senator Reid publicly as a “voice of stability, a voice of inspiration” in his comments, just before he announced the deal that effectively ended the shutdown.

Another possible surprise winner in this competition is the strongly conservative magazine, National Review. The magazine’s congressional reporters, Bob Costa and Jonathan Strong, get kudos from their media colleagues, offering the best possible proof that reporting on behalf of an ideologically driven publication is not always equal being as ideologically driven as your publishing home. By all accounts, too, Twitter also came into adulthood as an indispensable tool for professionals in their efforts to keep up with all the things going on Capitol Hill.

Then there is Senator Rand Paul. He was virtually mute during this recent unpleasantness, but that was by design. By not leading the conservatives’ charge against the Republican establishment himself, leaving that up to Ted Cruz, Paul managed to keep his powder dry as a compromise candidate in 2016 - a man with both Tea Party and establishment support. Clever fella.

On the other side of the ledger, by some calculations, Speaker of the House, John Boehner, racked up a failing grade, despite his wriggling and wiggling efforts to build up a working majority. Ultimately, his failure comes from his thinking he could bridge between the two factions of his party. He may well have survived to hold onto his position, but this may well be at a certain cost to his reputation in the larger political sphere.

The concept of the “super” committee is also a big downer for most observers. This is the conceit that a bigger than life budget committee will, somehow, magically, come up with a nice, neat solution for all of financial problems that have afflicted the political system for years - even decades. And this committee is, of course, a key feature of the budget solution signed into law that is supposed to sort everything out before Christmas.

Earlier, we took the word of observers that Cruz was a winner in this game. However, there is another perspective that calls him a big loser as well. He made so many antagonists in his party from his role in the affair, as the Washington Post argues, “it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t come back to bite him if/when he runs for president in three years’ time. Plus, while Cruz bolstered his bona fides within the GOP base, he hurt his image everywhere else. If Republicans prize electability in their nominee in 2016 - and who knows if they will - then Cruz may have a major problem of his own making. And, not for nothing, but Cruz’s attempt to defund Obamacare (or at least delay it) didn’t work. At all.”

A major loser in this whole thing was also the GOP brand. By the time it was all over, close on to 75% of Americans indicated their disapproval with the way Republicans had handled the budget fight. Congressional Republicans have also discovered a new nadir in their overall approval ranking. The only silver lining in this black cloud is that all of this has come a year before the next election, thereby giving the party time to come out of this dark reputational cave. A year is an eternity in politics, as the old adage goes.

Of course the biggest loser may just be the American government as a whole. This whole shambles has played out before international audiences of investors, bondholders, allies and antagonists alike. The question America’s politicians should be asking now is whether they want to have a reprise of this same mess in a couple of months, once again giving everyone the feeling they are strapped into a poorly built, runaway rollercoaster ride instead of being part of the inner workings of the world’s oldest continuous democracy.

Curious readers may have noticed that there is one person - President Barack Obama - so far left out of this rundown. The National Journal’s Matthew Cooper argues, “it's hard to see the president gaining from all of this. He's got to face another round of debt-ceilings and government shutdowns later this winter and his saying he wants to leap right into immigration reform seems deluded. Instead, he has the joy of more long-range entitlement-and-budget talks with Republicans who want to put him in a dicey situation with his own party. What's more, the president said that he wouldn't negotiate – and a negotiated ceasefire is what we ended up with.”

However, this writer thinks that is unduly harsh. His victory in Congress has more than a passing similarity to his achievement with Syria. Despite a stop-start-on-off campaign to rid that conflict zone of chemical weapons that had virtually come to an awkward standstill, the president was able to grab a Russian lifeline and end up with pretty much what he hoped to achieve, without the deployment of a single cruise missile.

In this current case, Obama benefited directly from the ineptitude of the Tea Party’s team, the skill of Harry Reid, the growing frustration of the nation, and the increasing fears of the international investment community.

All of these contributed in the end to allow President Obama to grab at least a temporary victory from the jaws of national embarrassment. And just maybe he will be able to get a bit of momentum going as the two parties gear up for the next round, early in 2014. 2014 will, of course, be when the Republicans enter into their fratricidal civil war between the wrecking crew Tea Party and those compromising RINOs (Republicans in name only) who allowed the party to be defeated in this round.

Of course one other contender moves well beyond the traditional division between winner and loser - and occupies an entirely new category, all by itself. CNN's Anderson Cooper was interviewing Republican strategist Alex Castellanos on the congressional moves on the penultimate night of the crisis when Castellanos described Ted Cruz’s tactics as his having had “bunny sex” on international television. As Castellanos said, “A friend explained to me today, finally, what Ted Cruz is doing. And I finally understand, he’s having bunny sex.”

Nonplussed, Cooper responded, “This is the late-night edition of 360.”

Castellanos then went on regardless, saying, “In nature, there are boom and bust cycles. The snowshoe hare, every ten years, multiplies sixfold.”

Cooper asked - remember, this is live on television - “Are you high?”

Castellanos answered, “I’m high. I wish I was. The snowshoe hare - I thought it’s a marvellous explanation - every ten years, multiplies six fold. Bunnies like sex apparently. But the boom produces a bust. They press their food supply, they invite predators. Right now, Ted Cruz, what’s he’s doing, feels good. He’s growing his supporters. It’s leading the Republican Party, I think, into a bust.” Castellanos then went on with yet another analogy saying that Cruz had driven “the entire Republican Party through a car wash in a convertible and everybody got wet but him.”

And who says American politics isn’t sometimes just too funny for words? With this, your reporter finally is released from his duties on the government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis and is allowed to take the weekend off so he can gear up to examine international crises and South African cultural developments. At last. DM

Read more:

Main photo: John Boehner, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Harry Reid (Reuters)

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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