The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

By David Smith

The Senate deal to lift the debt ceiling and reopen the US government looks like a near-total victory for the Democrats.

President Barack Obama and his party have conceded almost nothing on Obamacare, their signature legislation of the past four years.

Because the Tea Party refused to go along with any plan short of defunding or delaying Obamacare, Republican House Speaker John Boehner was unable to present a counter-offer. He was forced to accept a Senate deal that passed the House with the support of Democrats and a minority of Republicans.

Democrats are celebrating a triumph over “hostage-taking”. In 2011, they made significant concessions in the face of a Republican threat to allow a debt default rather than raising taxes. The result of that first standoff was the sequester, a package of deep spending cuts to social services and defence.

By refusing to budge this time, Democrats hope they have permanently eliminated the tactic of extracting policy concessions by threatening to scuttle the American and global economies.

There is no doubt who won the public relations war this time around. Despite widespread antipathy to Obamacare, the overwhelming majority of Americans disapproved of the Republicans' tactics. Last week, approval of the Republican Party dropped to record low numbers, in the mid-20s. The popularity of the Tea Party, and of the congressmen who identify with it, has never been lower. They brought the nation to the brink of catastrophe and have nothing to show for it.

But this win looks less impressive when we consider what now passes for normal in American politics. The deals to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government open expire in a few months. It seems doubtful there can ever be a longer-term deal reached as long as Obama is President and Republicans control the House.

The deal leaves in place spending at sequester levels — $200 billion a year less than what the Democrats wanted, and $100 billion below what even Republicans were proposing before the sequester.

These continuing cuts threaten the viability of long-standing programs providing assistance to the poor.

Many Democrats hoped the debt ceiling fiasco would damage the Republican Party beyond repair, but any damage is likely to be short term. The next midterm election is 13 months away, and it will be almost impossible for Republicans to lose the House.

At the last election Democrats received 1.7 million more votes than Republicans in the House, and still lost by 32 seats. Democrats are unlikely to get the votes they need to win in a midterm election, where the electorate tends to be older and whiter.

Nor is this episode likely to damage the esteem of the Tea Party within the Republican Party. If anything, it will strengthen it. Republican congressmen who voted with Democrats to lift the debt ceiling will be the targets of well-funded Tea Party challengers in Republican primaries next year.

The weekend Tea Party protest, in which a Confederate flag was brandished and a speaker told Obama to “put the Koran down”, may have looked like a lunatic fringe, but it was quite representative of the activists who vote in midterm primaries.

Attendees included Sarah Palin, who has emerged as a kingmaker in Republican primaries, and Ted Cruz, who in some polls is the frontrunner for the 2016 presidential nomination. They will take this debacle as a sign the party needs to be further purified.

Many Tea Party Republicans sincerely believe it would be better to default on debt than allow Obamacare. Given the vehemence of their opposition, it is easy to forget the conservative roots of the policy.

In 1989, when some Democrats were arguing for single-payer healthcare, the right-wing Heritage Foundation devised the individual mandate (compulsory purchase of health insurance) as a market-based alternative.

During the 1990s, Republicans proposed the individual mandate in response to Bill and Hillary Clinton's plans for universal healthcare. Mitt Romney introduced an individual mandate as governor of Massachusetts in 2006.

This law for which Obama and the Democrats have had to fight so hard — even after it passed Congress, was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court and survived a presidential election — is in fact a conservative alternative to the kinds of universal health insurance schemes that are normal in other capitalist democracies.

None of this matters to the Tea Party. It represents Americans who believe their way of life is being taken away from them by the government. To them, debt is an existential threat and Obamacare is socialism. They want legislators who will above all “stand up to Obama”, regardless of the consequences. Defeats like this one will only reinforce their fears. American politics may continue to look like this for quite some time.

This article was originally published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald