Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Over lunch with columnists a month ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid precisely predicted the future course of the debt-limit debate. Democrats, he said, would not accept serious entitlement changes without accompanying tax increases. Republicans would not accept revenue increases. So an eventual agreement would be focused on domestic discretionary and defense cuts. Reid proceeded to tick off the categories of spending where the reductions would come -- a list closely resembling the eventual compromise.

It was a demonstration of Reid's underestimated skill as a legislative technician. It was also the description of a debt debate in Washington that remains unserious.

The debt-limit deal, which strained and nearly snapped American politics, was the easy part. The compromise involved no reforms of Medicare or Social Security, and no tax increases. Once again, the president and Congress targeted discretionary spending -- about a third of the federal budget. Given the severity of previous discretionary spending cuts, this strategy will not work the next time around.

The bargain addresses a liquidity problem; it does not resolve the debt crisis. Yet this exertion has left Democrats and Republicans winded and prostrate at the first mile of a marathon.

The application of stress has revealed a number of weaknesses in the political system.

First, Barack Obama is a weakened president. Republicans were able to take a routine procedure -- the debt-limit increase -- and turn it into a powerful policy lever. This maneuver certainly will be turned against GOP presidents in the future. But it worked well this time. While congressional Republicans suffered tactical reverses along the way, they won a strategic triumph. Debt, deficits and spending are the dominant issues in American politics -- which makes Republicans the dominant political force.

Which also places Obama in serious political trouble. Last week's economic growth numbers were dismal beyond the most bearish expectations -- 0.4 percent GDP growth in the first quarter and 1.3 percent in the second quarter. This previews equally depressing employment numbers. And it complicates the deficit challenge. President Obama's budget assumed a 3.6 percent growth rate for 2012. Lawrence Lindsey, former director of National Economic Council, argues that a slowed economy may increase the 10-year debt projection by as much as $5 trillion -- dwarfing the savings of the debt deal.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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