As Usual, Liberals Attacking Budget Deal Miss the Long Game

Yesterday, Paul Ryan and Patty Murray announced a budget deal that eases up on the dumb sequestration, meets the House and Senate budget numbers in the middle, raises minimal revenue and avoids another government shutdown. And right on cue, ideologues on the Right and Left have begun to pounce at any hint of compromise.

John Boehner is taking flack from - and lashing out at - the right wing of activists who are incensed at the fact that House Republicans would strike any deal at all that could win President Obama's blessing, even a qualified one. Groups like Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity (hmm... they seem to have a funding source in common) are lobbying Republicans to scuttle the deal, crying foul at the GOP's agreement of $45 billion in higher spending than their previous position.

But if the Right wing fanatics are good at whipping up the Republican party into a frenzy, our own ideologues have also been honing their skills of whining and short-sightedness. Yesterday, it started with Ezra Klein's recently-introduced bad mixture of good policy summary and terrible political eptitude as he complained that Democrats "flatly got beat on sequestration." Today, the Economic Policy Institute's Lawrence Mishel, among others, inevitably joined in with hissy fits over the fact that the deal does not include extended unemployment benefits.

To be sure, the deal itself is no big leap in policy - although more targeted cuts and some reduction of the sequestration does help, as does canceling an obscure federal program established in 2005 to spend public dollars for drilling research (bet you didn't know that, huh?). And of course, there is no policy disagreement on the liberal side that unemployment benefits should be extended. But the failure from liberals whining about the deal, as usual, is complete and utter blindness to Barack Obama's long game.

Let's start with the popular liberal theme of extending unemployment benefits. Strategically thinking, Democrats should want this fight to be held outside of the budget negotiations - for much the same reason Republicans kept the war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan outside of the normal budget process.

Setting aside the fact that the war in Iraq was terrible policy and extending unemployment benefit is good policy, one reason Republicans kept the war out of the budget is it was a great political performer for them. They could attack Democrats who vote against funding as unpatriotic. Democrats, should thy choose to get their act together, can do much the same to Republicans on the issue of unemployment benefits extension and the minimum wage - especially in an election year. An all-out campaign to extend unemployment benefits now and next year would have two possible outcomes - first, and preferably, we reach the goal of actually extending benefits, or putting Republicans in awkward positions and wounding them politically for taking away unemployment benefits. Add to that a platform of state-by-state ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, and a good part of the formula for Democratic success in 2014 emerges.

See, if the Republicans were smart, they would include an unemployment extension in the deal, take the hit with their base now, and avoid a yearlong campaign that the president will surely wage to clobber them over this issue and connecting it to others. But if they do, they would bleed even more votes from their own members and tick off even more teabaggers. Their predicament, while rather amusing, is understandable.

But it isn't just about 2014, either. Or 2016, or any particular election. The long term goal of the Obama presidency has always been to realign America - politically and in a values sense - from a "you're on your own" world to a "we're all in this together" world. No issues are more closely targeted to that realignment than expanded unemployment benefits in an economy that is still tough, a fair minimum wage, employment nondiscrimination, and immigration reform. Having stand-alone status gives these issues the prominence they need to continue the paradigm shift that began with Barack Obama's election.

To that end, the very idea of government by compromise, even if something doesn't include everyone one side wants - is anathema to the Tea Party. Republicans have cultivated a base of hateful, resentful voters who do not just see Barack Obama as the enemy but government itself. Any deviation from sequestration that adjusts spending upwards isn't simply "more spending" for them; it is a move towards collaboration with a president who embodies a form of social justice they abhor - and it is a move away from shrinking government by any means necessary (insert usual teabagger exceptions for spending on tax subsidies for the rich, for the military industrial complex, etc.).

If government works -  at all - teabaggers lose. Breaking the back of the Tea Party is a necessary step in returning to a functioning democracy and an activist government. This deal is part of that strategic imperative. It alone won't end their stranglehold on the GOP and our political process, but it is the first time in a long time the Republican leadership in Congress has seriously challenged their power. It was the reasonable step after the ritual humiliation their party received in the aftermath of October's government shutdown, but that Republicans would act rationally for once has so far been unthinkable.

This budget deal isn't a big policy achievement, though it has modest improvements from the status quo. But the victory for the president, and for progressives here, is much less policy and much more tactical. In the short-term future, Democrats have been given the opportunity make 2014 all about economic opportunity while Republicans have made themselves sitting ducks as targets in that fight. In the longer view, Democrats can continue to claim the economic imperative even as Republicans are robbed of their power to create complete chaos.

So, my fellow liberals, it would help if instead of freaking out about imagined inadequacies of Barack Obama, you found a way to take the opening the president has given us and make a generation of progressive, activist, pragmatic government a reality.