The No-Shutdown Wrap: Boehner Wins, Austerity Wins, and the Social Conservatives Go Home With A "Participant" Trophy

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 9 2011 12:04 AM

The No-Shutdown Wrap: Boehner Wins, Austerity Wins, and the Social Conservatives Go Home With A "Participant" Trophy

Shortly after 10:50 p.m., Speaker of the House John Boehnerwas the first budget negotiator to announce that there’d been a deal, and agovernment shutdown would be averted. Shortly after that President Barack Obamaannounced that he’d sign "the biggest annual spending cut in our history."

You’d have to be asleep not to see who won tonight.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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Am I about to engage in that hideous Washington parlor gameof declaring "winners and losers," as if billions of dollars that would affectreal lives were just Monopoly papers being moved across a board? I hope not.What I mean is that most economists agree – sorry, Austrians, you’re stilloutnumbered – that when a country is pulling out of a recession, it’s not agood idea to slash spending. It didn’t work in 1937, it’s not working too wellin the UK. It was a few short weeks ago when Mark Zandi was suggesting that $61billion of cuts could cost 700,000 jobs by 2012, and Ben Bernanke suggestedthey could knock a little bit off of our GDP.

And yet. For the second time in five months, the White Househas faced a political crisis, looked at an opposition that completely disagreedwith liberal economics, and blinked. Five months ago, automatic tax increaseswere stopped, and the GOP got a validation of supply-side economics. Tonight,in a battle over a much smaller amount of money, the Democrats signed on toausterity economics. They didn’t have much of a choice, but they didn’tchallenge the premise, either. We’re a long way from the "Sputnik moment."

The saga of the Planned Parenthood rider is a good way oflooking at this. In February, Rep. Mike Pence introduced the rider to ban TitleX funds from going to Planned Parenthood. It would have saved around $363million, but it was anathema to Democrats. So it served two purposes -- abargaining chit for the coming debate, and a way to shift the Overton Window onthe abortion debate.

Tonight, Democrats got the rider stripped, handing a massivevictory to the pro-choice movement. So – spitballing before we get exactnumbers – Pence’s $363 million was worth an extra $637 million. That’s a prettygood deal for economic conservatives.

It’s a lousy deal for social conservatives, and that’simportant. In the very first test of their strength in the new Washington, theyhave been bargained away, yet again. I don’t think the GOP had much of achoice. Just as Democrats let the argument about economics slip away from them,Republicans were almost hysterically flat-footed on Planned Parenthood.

Conservatives started with a knowledge problem, and theynever got past it. As far as the pro-life movement is concerned, PlannedParenthood is synonymous with "abortion." That might be true, too, amongAmericans who don’t use Planned Parenthood. But because Republicans started a fightabout this, Democrats – and reporters – started saying things that neverusually make it into the press, like the facts about the Hyde Amendment, andthe facts about how Planned Parenthood is reimbursed for health care. Sen. JonKyl made the defining Republican stumble of the debate, saying on the Senatefloor that "90 percent" of Planned Parenthood’s work was abortion. Withinhours, his office clarified that this was not intended as a fact, an odd thingto say at a moment when Washington was focused on numbers , numbers, and more numbers.

So there will be things social conservatives like in thiscontinuing resolution, but some of what they wanted was bargained away. Thatbenefited Democrats, but it benefited economic conservatives even more. On thefloor of the House yesterday, Rep. Steny Hoyer tried to score points onRepublicans by paraphrasing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a possible 2012presidential candidate who’s been saying that there should be a "social truce"until the economy and the debt are righted. The implication of what Hoyer saidis that Democrats, too, want to tackle the debt, and think the era of stimulus spending is over.

Let’s go back to the raw politics. Can we say thatRepublicans got the better of the no-shutdown deal? Yes, because if there hadbeen a shutdown, Republicans would have been blamed for it. The record was allcued up. Democrats spent months predicting that Boehner would have troublecontrolling his new Tea Party members. They spent this week saying he had toput the Tea Party "horse back in the barn," as Dick Durbin said. Well, there’sa deal – the implication is that he put the horse back in the barn. If theRepublicans would have been blamed for a shutdown, it follows that they getcredit for a shutdown being avoided.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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