"We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win.” Thus John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives and in theory the most powerful politician in Congress, after the deal that re-opened the US government and averted the calamity of a debt default.
The truth is somewhat different. Mr Boehner’s Republicans fought an ignoble and pointless fight that inflicted deep damage on their country. And to observe that his party did not win is putting it mildly. It achieved nothing of what it was seeking, most notably a postponement (read, scrapping) of President Obama’s signature health care reform. Instead it suffered a crushing defeat that – and this is the sole redeeming feature of the entire wretched episode – may just bring the party to its senses.
That outcome, alas, is anything but guaranteed. Judging by reactions immediately after the Wednesday evening Senate and House votes that ended the crisis, the ultra-conservative minority that has been holding America to ransom shows little sign of changing its ways.
In the meantime America must count the cost of this completely unnecessary exercise in futility. The $20bn direct loss to the US economy is only the start of it. Mr Boehner’s “good fight” has further poisoned the atmosphere on Capitol Hill, and distracted attention from far more important legislative issues, such as immigration reform and climate change. Then there is the damage to the country’s reputation and financial standing. Worst of all, the deal has settled exactly nothing.
The government is being funded again, but only until mid-January; the Treasury may borrow, but only until early February. There is absolutely no guarantee that the zealots, unchecked by Mr Boehner, will use these deadlines to provoke a repeat shutdown and a new round of brinkmanship on the debt ceiling.
True, under the agreement, a bipartisan joint House and Senate panel is being set up, with instructions to work out by 13 December a blueprint to balance the budget, and thus resolve the arguments underlying this latest and previous confrontations between Mr Obama and Congress. But few would give it much chance of succeeding where previous attempts have failed, in reconciling the vast differences between the parties on taxes and spending.
Ultimately, the impasse is not economic but political, and will only be settled at the ballot box. The best hope of averting a new crisis lies in the approach of the 2014 midterm elections, and Republican fears of a brutal backlash from voters.
A clear majority of Americans blame Congressional Republicans, not Democrats, for the autumn folly on Capitol Hill. If Republicans do bring about a repeat early next year, then they will surely bring down on their heads the electoral disaster their party both needs and deserves.