I pulled my earlier post about the fiscal cliff negotiations because, upon reading it this morning, I found it too bad-tempered. I don't disavow the sentiments it expressed, particularly about Congress's apparently endemic inability since the 2010 midterm elections (and not coincidentally the rise of the "tea party" as a force within the larger Republican Party) to engage in serious problem-solving, even when the stakes for the country are very high.
Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?
While Congress has managed to raise taxes slightly on a small number of very wealthy people (mainly because the President caved on the income level at which tax increases would take effect) and averted draconian spending cuts that would have hurt the military, the middle class, and the poor, it failed to take the opportunity to resolve the debt-ceiling problem or reform entitlements, which threaten the long-run fiscal solvency of the country. They just kicked those cans down the road, as they've done before.
Political Winners and Losers?
Well, the President kept his campaign promise to raise taxes on the wealthy and protect the middle-class, and he sort of accomplished both of those promises. But he also displayed, once again, an ability to negotiate strongly from a position of (relative) power; and he studiously avoided dealing with the messy problem of entitlements, which is not going to go away. If a term-limited president cannot take up the problem, who can?
House Speaker John Boehner is widely cast as a loser, and that may well be true politically: his authority in his own caucus is at a low ebb. But I admire his serious efforts to deal with the combined taxing and spending issues in a serious way, despite the risk to his own position in his Party. Does anyone doubt that, left to their own devices, he and the President could have worked out a much better deal for the entire country? From the first day he became Speaker, Boehner has been hamstrung by extreme ideologues in his own party, who seem more beholden to Grover Norquist (another big loser from the negotiated settlement) than their constitutional oaths.
Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden both come out of the negotiations with credit for getting a deal that averts big problems, and should mollify both Wall Street and Main Street, if only temporarily.
See, the System Does (Ultimately) Work... Or Does It?
This deal, if approved by the House later today, is only a partial solution to problems the most important parts of which (e.g., entitlement reform) have only been temporarily put off. It represents the culmination of negotiations that started when the Obama Administration first took office and completed not at the last minute (before going over the fiscal cliff), but a day after the last minute (again, assuming that Republicans in the House go along). Is this a success story or failure of the American political system? It's worth noting that this was not a constitutional crisis or another kind of extraordinary situation; rather, the problems Congress was trying to resolve were more in the nature of "normal politics." Perhaps there's no such thing as "normal politics" anymore in the USA. Maybe everything's a constitutional (or quasi-constitutional) crisis.