I taught two sections of American Government at the University of Tampa this fall. Much of what I needed to cover was illustrated amply in the headlines.
The run up to the government shut down and the near-failure to raise the debt ceiling revealed the realities of the separation of powers and checks and balances. It highlighted the organization of the two chambers of Congress. It demonstrated the important organizing principle of political partisanship, and highlighting both the power and the limitations of the power of institutionalized political leadership.
Outside the formal channels of national government, the fall battles highlighted the important influence of public opinion and the persistent threat of electoral defeat (even though more than 90 percent of the members of Congress who sought re-election in 2012 were, in fact, re-elected). It also highlighted the powerful role of organized interest groups and wealthy individuals willing to pour millions into independent expenditure campaign.
The debate about the effect of a shutdown highlighted concerns about economic and social policy and the role the federal government plays in sustaining or undermining economic growth and opportunity. The debt ceiling crisis even presented us with lessons in international affairs, as we watched our allies and our rivals debate whether their investments in our public debt were wise, and whether what we call “democracy” was something worth the price.
I had a pretty good track record in predicting certain events and how they would play out. Many of my students thought I was something of a prophet.
This morning, the prophet has proven to be just another sham.
As the semester was winding down, I had suggested that Sequester II would be looming large as the holidays approached. I predicted that the House of Representatives would be riven by intra-party warfare (on the Republican side) and political calculation (on the Democratic side), that ultimately the only way we would avoid the crisis would be with the kind of brinkmanship that finally forced temporary resolution in October.
I was entirely wrong.
On Thursday, a two-year budget deal passed the House, and not by some bizarre coalition made up of an overwhelming majority of the minority Democrats and a small minority of the majority Republicans. Instead, the budget deal passed with more than three times as many Yeas as Nays, and with majorities of both parties in support. For the first time in what seems like a very long time, a difficult and substantive matter of public policy was successfully addressed . . . I can’t believe I’m writing this . . . in a solidly bipartisan fashion.
One can (and should) be aware of the political calculations behind this burst of bipartisan cooperation. Pragmatic Republican strategists saw the drubbing their party brand received as a result of the shutdown in October. Major interests whose financial support has been critical to Republican success read the same signs, and have signaled a possible change in their “investment” strategy that will seek to elect pragmatically conservative Republicans in the next cycle, rather than simply supporting Republicans. That gives comfort to representatives who fear a primary attack from the right, and may have emboldened Speaker Boehner to declare, as he did in the two days leading up to the vote yesterday, that certain conservative interests were actually destroying, rather than strengthening, the Republican Party.
It was an acknowledgement that there is a war under way for the soul of the Republican Party and that both sides were now committed to engaging in that struggle.
On the Democratic side, pragmatic strategists knew that they could not trump up a budget fight without finding themselves in the same trouble the Republicans had been in earlier. And with the Democratic brand suffering badly due to the persistent problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, they could ill afford to demonstrate that, in yet another area, Democrats were incompetent to govern.
the Republicans handed the Democrats another “battle to the death” over the budget, they would have marched into the fray singing joyfully, knowing that public opinion would again be on their side.
But the Republicans didn’t . . .
And so, as the last short days of a very long year pass by, as the semester ends for my students and the last shopping days vanish, a kind of bipartisan peace is falling like a gentle dusting of snow across the land.
And just like that pretty white snow, we know that, by early January, it will be gray and grimy, that the beautiful moment will become another sloppy winter of slogging it out, splattered by slush, pounded by gales, and struggling against the dark.
But for now . . . let there be bipartisan peace on Earth, and let it . . . again, I can’t believe I’m saying this . . . begin with the U.S. House.