The Republicans did not win this budget fight, but the cuts they were able to extract illustrate, ironically, that Democrats are finally on the defensive. Scorekeeping aside, we must build on this non-victory because it was also a Democratic retreat.
Last week, I argued that the GOP should not cave on the budget negotiations for many reasons, including that today is not 1995-96. Things are so much different now, especially because of the existential threat to the republic that the exploding national debt represents.
Not surprisingly, my position didn't prevail. The Republicans reneged on their promise to cut $100 billion (or the so-called pro rata equivalent of that, $61 billion) for the remainder of the fiscal year.
They caved because they apparently bought into the conventional wisdom that a government shutdown would be blamed on mean-spirited Republicans. Folks, if that's true, then why did the Democrats, who are in delusional denial about the debt crisis, agree to $38.5 billion in cuts?
If Democrats were as cocksure that the public would blame the GOP for a shutdown and punish its members accordingly, then why didn't they just avoid infuriating their base and hold fast at $6.2 billion in cuts or whatever farcical number they had proposed?
The answer is that they got pummeled in the November elections, and the public mood is overwhelmingly inclined toward getting this debt crisis under control. What Democrats would not compromise on, which illustrates just how much their party has degenerated, was the public funding of Planned Parenthood. That was nonnegotiable because, just as with unions, they'll never cut off funds to a group that in turn funds them.
So though I'm not happy about the result, there is a silver lining, and I hope Republicans will recognize it and build on it rather than glean the wrong lessons from the just-ended budget fight.
The correct lessons are: Democrats are on the defensive, and they know it, so the GOP must use its leverage wisely. We will not reverse our national debt crisis through bipartisan compromise, because half-measures won't do and half-measures, nay, quarter-measures are the most we can ever expect to squeeze out of the Democrats. The half-measure resolution of the just-ended budget skirmish is an example. If we think Democrats got nasty this time, just imagine what they'll say about meaningful entitlement reform.
It's true that the real battle will be over the long-term budget proposals -- Paul Ryan's vs. the Democrats'. But unless our side enters this war intending to defeat the demagogues rather than split the baby in half, we might as well start preparing for European-style austerity.
What do I mean that Democrats aren't serious and won't approach budget cutting in good faith? Well, after spending us into the occult and presenting a sham 10-year budget, Obama went AWOL during the budget negotiations. He has been cynically uninterested and dismissive about entitlement reform. Yet now we read that he is going to unveil his own plan for debt reduction this week.
But wait; he already did that, as I mentioned, with his 10-year budget, which consisted of bankrupting trillion-dollar-a-year deficits as far as the eye could see -- all while telling us he would not be adding a single penny to the national debt.
The fact that he's presenting a new plan already proves he wasn't serious about the first one. It also further demonstrates that he and his party know they have deep credibility problems on fiscal issues. In Monday's Rasmussen tracking poll, Obama's presidential approval index was minus 20 percent.
So Republicans had better be prepared to take the gloves off and point out just how unserious Obama is and how ineffective his plan would be. They will shoot themselves in the foot if they continue to treat Obama as if he were approaching this problem in good faith and in pursuit of some kumbaya compromise.
Obama's plan will not be serious in its approach to entitlement reform; it will be more smoke and mirrors on top of what he's already presented (which was nothing), and it will most likely involve tax hikes.
The problem with that is that following entitlements, the next biggest driver of our deficits is our lethargic economy, which is gasping for breath under the oppressive weight of an ever-expanding public sector, onerous taxes and crippling regulations.
Obama is congenitally predisposed against agreeing to the types of pro-growth policies that will have to accompany real entitlement reform if we are to reverse our debt picture.
So even if the GOP lost this budget battle, the Democrats didn't win it, either, which should embolden the GOP to fight harder in the war ahead. If it loses that war, it must go down fighting on principle; otherwise it reduces its chances of winning in 2012 -- the biggest showdown of all.