A raw deal

A RAW DEAL…. There was arguably no way this budget fight was going to end well. In November, Americans elected the most conservative House majority in modern political history, and in December, Senate Republicans derailed an omnibus that would have funded the government through the end of the fiscal year.

Those two developments ensured a few things: (1) we’d see an ugly battle that could lead to a shutdown; (2) President Obama was going to have to compromise; and (3) the end result wouldn’t be pretty.

With that in mind, I’m not unsympathetic to those defending last night’s agreement from a Democratic perspective. Oliver Willis makes a compelling case, for example, that the White House did what it had to do to keep the government open, and “presided over a bipartisan result that avoided the attempt to scuttle women’s health issues and environmental concerns.”

That’s true. But I still can’t defend the deal on the merits.

Ezra Klein offers this tale of the tape.

The final compromise was $38.5 billion below 2010’s funding levels. That’s $78.5 billion below President Obama’s original budget proposal, which would’ve added $40 billion to 2010’s funding levels, and $6.5 billion below John Boehner’s original counteroffer, which would’ve subtracted $32 billion from 2010’s budget totals. In the end, the real negotiation was not between the Republicans and the Democrats, or even the Republicans and the White House. It was between John Boehner and the conservative wing of his party. And once that became clear, it turned out that Boehner’s original offer wasn’t even in the middle. It was slightly center-left.

Consider it this way: on Feb. 3, just nine weeks ago, the House Republican leadership unveiled their spending-cut plan, which would have cut $32 billion for the remainder of the fiscal year. They acknowledged that this was far less than they’d promised during the campaign, but additional cuts, they said, were unrealistic. Democrats, at the time, thought this level of reductions was outrageous, and they were right. Indeed, the leadership’s plan was considered so severe, one report referred to the proposal as “the GOP Chainsaw Massacre.”

What’s more, the $32 billion offered by the GOP leadership two months ago was their opening bid. They expected to compromise from there, and their plan included no policy riders at all.

It seems ridiculous now, but if Democrats had, on that very day, accepted the House Republican leadership’s spending cuts right there on the spot, it would have been a better deal than the one we ended up with last night.

Of course, whether Dems agreed to $32 billion in cuts or $38.5 billion in cuts is only part of the larger dynamic here. At a more fundamental level, the question that mattered most — with a weak economy and high unemployment, whose bright idea was it to scrap public investment and take billions out of the economy? — was never even asked. Because Dems flubbed the debate from the outset, the entire discussion ignored job creation, leading to a fight that boiled down to “a lot of cuts vs. a whole lot of cuts.”

I realize Dems were left in an untenable position: allow a shutdown that would hurt the economy or accept spending cuts that would hurt the economy. Republicans, and the voters who mistakenly gave Republicans considerable power and influence, came up with the misguided agenda and relied on a hostage strategy that tends to work for them.

But those realizations don’t change the relative strength of the deal, or lack thereof. I’m glad the shutdown was averted, but I’m trying to think of a way to defend the budget agreement on the merits, and nothing comes to mind.