WASHINGTON — The credit rating on U.S. bonds may survive the debt-ceiling fiasco, but the president and speaker of the House, the two most powerful figures in American government, have already been downgraded.
Both leaders are trying to govern in a world that doesn’t exist. Barack Obama, who came to the White House as a unifying force at a perilous moment, is the sole occupant of the post-partisan utopia he conjured as a candidate — a land where reason is king and we all get along. He loves the center the way a kid loves ice cream. Too bad the center no longer exists in Washington, where the Republican opposition is openly determined to destroy Obama’s presidency.
By announcing his final position at the outset of debt negotiations, Obama thought he would compel the other side to reward him for his candor and conduct themselves in kind. How naive. If Obama tried to buy a car the way he bargained to get the debt ceiling raised, he would leave the lot paying more than the sticker price, GPS and satellite radio not included.
John Boehner is a capable, likable politician of the old school. He raises prodigious amounts of money for his members, pals around with lobbyist friends and leaves a trail of Camel Ultra Lights smoke in his wake. He expected to wield power in a traditional way; if not in the mode of congressional powerhouses like Sam Rayburn or Boehner’s idol from Ohio, Nicholas Longworth, then at least in the manner of former Republican House leaders Robert Michel or Dennis Hastert. Boehner wasn’t afraid to do business with Obama. When it mattered, his rambunctious troops would fall in line, either for the good of the country or for an invitation to the Speaker’s Room for pizza and a post office.
It didn’t play out that way. With earmarks an evil remnant of Congress’s past, a speaker doesn’t have much pork to deploy as bait to lure recalcitrant members to his side. And neither of these leaders seems to have reckoned just how far the tea party faction would go, or that its members would be deaf to concerns about debt ceilings, credit ratings or the potential for an economy crashing around their ears. The Republicans may have created the crisis, but its tea party wing produced the scary special effects.
As the deadline drew near, it was the tea party that controlled Speaker Boehner, not the other way around. They humiliated Boehner by forcing him to deep-six his grand bargain with Obama (besides having impermissible revenue increases, it didn’t force Obama to eat worms). Boehner withdrew his own bill when it became clear that he couldn’t muster a majority. Instead, the speaker pushed through a symbolic package intended to make the tea party feel good — large budget cuts topped with an absurd balanced-budget amendment. Hours later, the Senate killed it without serious debate.
With the clock ticking down on default and stock markets declining day after day, even stalwart Republicans began to sweat. The Wall Street Journal editorial page lashed out at tea party “hobbits” for standing in the way of a deal. The message from the tea party: Damn the default, full speed ahead. At a news conference last week, Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, acknowledged the hurt default could cause people but said it was a risk that she and other tea party activists were willing to take.
Like the Journal editorial board, Obama, too, came to believe the danger was real; after that, he yielded one concession after another. Shared sacrifice with cuts balanced by revenue increases? He let those go when Boehner couldn’t sell it to the anti-tax absolutists in his caucus. A threat to invoke the 14th Amendment to uphold the “validity of the public debt” and unilaterally raise the debt ceiling? Threats are not this president’s style.
Liberals were at first sympathetic to Obama, understanding that when one party is willing to scuttle the economy in order to get its way, the fight is asymmetric. Yet they grew increasingly alarmed to see the president approaching battle like a conscientious objector. Yes, he needed to show concern over out-of-control spending and the debt, $7 trillion of which was racked up under his predecessor. And he would have to endure some cuts. But his basic miscalculation was apparent back in December -- a comparatively innocent era -- when he said that he could trust Boehner to do the right thing on the debt ceiling because he now had “responsibilities to govern.”
Obama’s post-partisan reasonableness earned him his lowest job approval rating of 40 percent from Gallup last week. If the debt deal kills the shaky economic recovery, Obama’s re-election will probably be collateral damage. Meanwhile, Boehner is stuck with an extremist minority basking in a triumph that he didn’t shape. By dancing with disaster, they got their way. Good luck urging them to unlearn that lesson. If Boehner and Obama both seem diminished, squeezed into smaller roles, maybe it’s because the past weeks have proved there is even less room for reason in Washington than we thought.
MARGARET CARLSON is a Bloomberg View columnist.