Showdown at the ol' Capitol Hill

  • 17 October 2013
  • From the section US & Canada
  • comments
US President Barack Obama leaves after speaking about the government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on 16 October 2013
When asked if this would all happen again, Mr Obama said, "no"

It was a classic showdown worthy of any Western.

An unruly bunch rode into town, terrorising the inhabitants, closing down the saloon and the general store, threatening to burn the whole place down until the unsmiling sheriff stands tough, refuses their outrageous demands and faces them down, forcing them into humiliating surrender.

Or a brave bunch of rebels make a stand against the imposition of dangerous tyranny, until for the sake of the land as a whole they give way, bloody, bowed but the light of revolt undimmed in their eyes.

It all depends on the narrative. But whichever way you tell it, Barack Obama won and the Republicans lost.

But what follows after one of the most acrimonious and tense confrontations in American politics in recent years is a little more complicated.

For the president it is pretty straightforward. Mr Obama stood his ground, and refused to give an inch.

He's given notice to Republicans that there's no point in picking a fight like that again.

That is a victory worth having. Conservatives will dislike him even more, arguing he is ignoring the legitimate role of the House and refusing to negotiate.

While bipartisanship may briefly become fashionable it may make it even harder for Mr Obama to win battles on immigration, gun control or the environment.

Not that victory was on the cards anyway.

But it does cheer his own supporters, and with elections next year, that's important.

Boehner's 'pretty pathetic'

It is very bad for Republicans. But this is the really hard one: it depends what you mean by bad and who you mean by Republicans.

Let's break it down a little more.

Certainly the party's poll ratings as a whole went through the floor.

That clearly is not good for them, but unless it actually makes people less likely to vote Republican in real elections it isn't of much consequence.

The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, may punch his fist, and get a standing ovation by his caucus, but he will be judged very harshly in the media.

He was pushed into adopting a tactic that he must have known never stood any chance of succeeding.

That makes him look pretty pathetic, an impotent leader who can't control his hot heads.

But it depends what he wants. Certainly he hasn't won any policy objectives.

But he has kept his party united, just about, and that wasn't easy. And it makes it fairly certain he can keep his job. It's not Gandhi, but a job is a job.

Soul-searching - or not?

It's bad for the Tea Party. Or maybe not.

They won't admit they have run up the white flag, but instead will portray themselves as defeated but unbroken.

That is pretty much a core part of a certain brand of political romanticism.

Most come from districts where this won't hurt them at all. The lesson activists will learn is that you need more hardliners in the House.

The idea that this marks a fight back by moderates against the radical right is, I think, wishful thinking by liberals and independents.

It's a fascinating idea, and I will be watching for any signs that it is true.

But I think it is founded on a basic mistake, a misunderstanding of what the argument inside the party was about during the crisis - not ideology, but tactics.

There are few centrists left in the House and the conservatives are only arguing about how far they take the fight.

One of the leaders of the Tea Party tactic, Senator Ted Cruz, may have made himself heartily loathed by other senators, but donations have flooded into his campaign organisation.

If his colleagues think he's a self-serving egotist, the people he wants to vote for him in presidential primaries love him a little bit more.

I doubt this is the point the Republican party will really look to widen its base.

That may only happen if Chris Christie wins the presidential nomination or after a second Hillary Clinton term. But there will certainly be some soul searching and those Republicans who dislike the Tea Party may be bolder in their opposition.

It is much harder to say if this spells an end to government by crisis. For a few months, it will, of course.

But the causes are too deep rooted for it to disappear. It is not impossible we simply will be back here again in the first months of the new year.