Why the 2011 Debt Ceiling Deal was Obama's Smartest Political Move and How it Broke the Elephant's Back

Though he admits that not enough votes exist to threaten defund the Affordable Care Act, Ted Cruz insists it must be done anyway. Jim Demint, head of the Heritage Foundation and former Senator, thinks that any Republican who doesn't vote to shut down the government unless 30 million people can be denied health care is not to be returned to office.

Fine by me. If Republicans want to make their last stand against Obamacare by threatening to shut down the government or by holding the debt limit hostage, they will be inviting massive public opposition and punishment at the ballot box. And if the Republican leadership rolls on both, as it seems likely now, they will be subject to the wrath of their insane base.

Of course, in the real world, the Republican leadership has no choice but to cave. The president has been clear for some time now - and it was just re-iterated by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew - that he won't be negotiating with the Republicans over the debt ceiling. Nor will he indulge the Republican effort to dismantle his signature domestic achievement.

Now, the fact that the president's administration has drawn an absolute red line against negotiating over the debt limit is seen by some of the liberal intelligentsia as a tacit admission by the White House that the 2011 negotiations were a mistake. In truth, it was the smartest political move the president made against a united Republican opposition. Not simply because the deal itself left John Boehner hat in hand, but also because the president foresaw its repercussions on the Republican party coming a mile away.

Consider this: at the time the 2011 debt ceiling deal was struck, the Republican party was invigorated, united, determined to blow up the economy in order to hurt the president and fresh off its greatest electoral victory in recent memory. Today, it is fractured, demoralized, sufficiently afraid of being blamed for a shutdown and fresh off an ass-whopping from the 2012 presidential elections. Ted Cruz and Jim Demint are trying to putthe rope around John Boehner's neck, and Boehner doesn't know what to do. This demoralization, this fractiousness, and even their fantastic election loss is due in good part to the 2011 debt ceiling deal.

Why would I say such a thing? First, let's take the election dynamics. While John Boehner publicly claimed victory in the 2011 deal, the crisis and the negotiations themselves irreparably harmed the Republican brand, while it cemented the president's status as the adult in the room who is willing to make tough compromises in the interest of this country. The Republicans stupidly highlighted this very contrast in their primary debates in 2012, most notably refusing to accept even a $1 tax increase in exchange for every $10 in spending cuts.

The narrative that was set by the 2011 debt ceiling deal - that of the president as the reasonable adult and the Republicans as schoolyard bullies - was the undercurrent of Democratic success in 2012. This is not to say that the huge policy differences and the president's campaign operation's ability to make precise surgical voter targeting decisions didn't deserve all the credit for his thumping victory over Mitt Romney last year, but the narrative that he carried forward - smart investments must be made and reasonable compromises must be reached in order to govern - began tipping the scale in his favor when the American people began diagnosing the GOP with extreme Obama Derangement Syndrome in the wake of the 2011 deal.

The united Republican opposition in 2010 - aided by dumb liberal opposition to the president's attempts to get big, progressive things done by compromising - brought in a wave of Tea Party crazies to Congress, and the while continued intransigence cost the Republican seats in both houses of Congress last year, it also elected, from red states, some red meat people like Ted Cruz.

That composition made for a few interesting developments earlier this year. First, under a credible threat from the White House and Senate Democrats, the House Republican leadership caved and allowed a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. Most Republicans voted against the bill, and the Speaker had to rely on predominantly Democratic votes in the House to pass it, lest he would get blamed for across the board tax increases.

Rubbing salt on that wound came the Republican leadership's complete surrender on the debt limit in January. That all enraged the Tea Party faction.

Those embarrassing losses brought on a third development: in order to pacify mutiny in the ranks, House Republicans refused to replace the sequester cuts, in the process hampering the economy. But given that 50% of the cuts went to the Pentagon and the big three (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) were completely exempt from the cuts, the real "drown the government in the bathtub" types saw it as pittance, especially in the context of the tax raisers on the rich. They demanded far deeper cuts - and especially cuts in social safety net programs - which the Republican leadership was helpless to deliver.

The baggers in the Republican party saw these developments, all outcomes of the 2011 deal (if indirectly), as losses for them and wins for Obama (and for once, I agree). They realize that the president got most of what he wanted - tax increases for the rich, no more debt ceiling fight, and the protection of big liberal programs and priorities, while they got a big cut in the Pentagon.

And that brings us to present day. Because the president negotiated with them in 2011, and the subsequent events were seen as wins for him, the Tea Party fringe wants a rematch. The Tea Party fringe continues to think that they can force him to negotiate again, and this time, they want no compromise but rather an outright Armageddon. It is that fire for a rematch that is making them go crazy (my apologies for the redundancy) and demand that the Republican party begin taking economic hostages again. They don't care if the hostage taking would further harm the Republican party. At this point, this is about revenge.

That desire for revenge is now tearing apart the Republican party. They are finally where we wanted them all along - where their Obama Derangement Syndrome is diving them rather than uniting them. One side is licking their wounds and is ready to make a last stance (and take down the country with them), and the other is deathly afraid because they know they'll lose again. One side wants war; the other side knows it can't be won. One side wants to rain down economic terrorism, and the other is looking for ways to repair its schoolyard-bully image that doesn't seem to sit well with voters. One side wants a rematch, and the other knows it has seen this movie before.

In 2011, after their big victories, Republicans were at their highest point in the Obama era. It was Democrats that were demoralized. In 2011, Republicans would have made the US default. Barack Obama chose that moment - the moment of greatest strength for Republicans - and with his brilliance and hard work turned it into the moment when their precipitous decline began. He wasn't intimidated in the face of a red wave; instead he worked to beat it back. It wasn't intended to give them a rematch, but to set them down the course of self-destruction. That's why the 2011 deal was likely the greatest political move of his time as president.

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