Whatever one thinks about the substance of the debt-ceiling bill, it represents a triumph for conservative agenda-setting. In his January State of the Union Address, President Obama urged the country to “win the future” by investing in education, research, innovation and infrastructure. We have heard little about that during the past six months. Instead, attention swiftly shifted to the Tea Party themes of deficits and debt, and it has remained there ever since. And at their insistence, even compromise-minded Republicans were forced to abjure revenue increases and focus solely on spending cuts.
This stunning sequence of events flies in the face of public opinion. The American people have consistently signaled that they place a higher priority on the economy and jobs than they do on fiscal issues. Every survey shows that when the people focus on fiscal policy, they strongly prefer some version of the president’s approach — that is, both spending cuts and tax increases — to one that achieves deficits reductions through spending cuts alone. And the public continues to indicate far more trust in the president to address this issue than in Congress; within Congress, more trust in Democrats than Republicans.In our political system, however, intense minorities can have a disproportionate impact. Although Tea Party backers constitute only a quarter of the electorate, they are highly mobilized and intensely focused. Because they are very conservative, they operate within the Republican Party. The Tea Party Republicans elected to the House in the 2010 landslide have shifted the center of gravity of their caucus to the right. House rules allow even a slender majority to dictate policy, as long as it manages to remain united. As yet, Speaker John Boehner has shown little inclination to flout the “Hastert rule” that the Speaker should not proceed without the support of the majority of the majority. And many members fear primary challenges more than they do general election contests. So Republicans from predominantly conservative districts — and that’s most of them — cannot afford to ignore Tea Party discontent.
The Founders saw the Senate as the more deliberative body — the saucer that would cool the tea. That’s still true to some extent. In the end, it was the Senate that took the lead to end the debt-ceiling impasse. But in recent decades, the polarization of our party system that has reshaped the House of Representatives has influenced the Senate as well. By the end of the 111th Congress, political scientists found that the most conservative Democratic senator was a bit more liberal than the most liberal Republican. The traditional center — the ideological overlap between the parties — had disappeared.
The debt-ceiling debate illustrates the difference this makes. Although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stance was less extreme than the Tea Party’s, he never contemplated revenue increases as part of a debt-reduction package. He had two overriding objectives — ensuring that Obama is a one-term president, and becoming Senate majority leader. Compromising with the White House on revenues would have served neither.
Ponder an “alternative history.” Suppose that instead of keeping his distance from his own fiscal commission, Obama had thrown his arms around its recommendations and made a balanced and substantial deficit-reduction plan — the Grand Bargain — the centerpiece of his State of the Union Address. Suppose further that his 2012 budget proposal had laid out a version of that plan. Although we’ll never know, I suspect the president would have been able to seize the high ground and use the broad public support for his approach to wear down at least some Republican opposition.
Because all parties to the dispute agree that the recently enacted debt-ceiling bill represents at most a down payment on the policy changes we will need to stabilize our finances for the long term, it seems inevitable that a debate about basic fiscal issues will shape the 2012 presidential contest. This isn’t all bad; that’s what elections are for. One can only hope that other economic issues — growth and jobs — don’t get lost in the shuffle as they have this year. Obama’s challenge now is to present and fight for a growth agenda that offers the American people the hope they have all but lost.