Op-Ed

Government shutdown: Plenty of lessons to go around

But will Democrats and Republicans learn them?

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Barack Obama

President Obama makes a statement to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington. (Charles Dharapak / Associated Press / October 16, 2013)

Obama and the Democrats won; Republicans and the tea party lost. And both sides are gearing up for next time.

Now that our recent brush with financial crisis is behind us, it's time to start planning for the next one.

That's the problem Congress set up in the stopgap deal that ended the 16-day government shutdown and averted a collision with the debt ceiling. After all the sound and fury, the two parties agreed only on continuing federal spending at its current level until Jan. 15 and raising the debt ceiling until Feb. 7.

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This was the epitome of a temporary cease-fire: An arrangement that freezes in place a situation neither side liked to begin with.

The deal didn't solve any of the long-term fiscal worries that landed us in this mess. It didn't even fix the sequester, the meat-ax budget cuts that hit good programs and bad ones without distinction.

Whether we can avoid a repeat performance this winter will depend on what lessons the two sides learn from the fiasco.

Let's take the Democrats first.

"There are no winners here," President Obama said politely Thursday morning as the government reopened.

But his aides and his allies in Congress don't really believe that — at least, not in a practical political sense.

They think the lesson of the crisis was straightforward: Toughness works. When Obama negotiated with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2011, he lost. The debt ceiling was raised, but Obama lost both on the substance of the issues and in the eyes of many voters. This time, when Obama dug in his heels and refused to negotiate over the debt ceiling, he won.

"Our goal was to prove to them that we were not going to engage with a gun pointed at our head," a White House aide told me. "That's accomplished."

That doesn't mean Obama won't negotiate with Republicans in the next round. Saying he wouldn't negotiate during the shutdown "was only a tactic; it wasn't a basic principle," the aide noted.

In the next round, Democrats hope to be negotiating from a better starting position. They believe Obama has shown he won't be pushed around, and they also are hopeful that Republicans got the message they can't use the debt ceiling as leverage any more.

"It's kryptonite; they won't want to touch it," the aide predicted.

In addition, next year's scheduled sequester cuts will slash defense spending more than this year's, a fact that might spur Republican hawks toward a deal Democrats want to soften both defense and domestic spending cuts.

And what did Republicans learn?

To Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Republican leader who negotiated the stopgap deal, the lesson was that government shutdowns end badly for Republicans, and he doesn't want to try another one. "There's no education in the second kick of a mule," McConnell told the conservative magazine National Review last week. "The first kick of the mule was in 1995; the second one was the last 16 days. A government shutdown is off the table. We're not going to do it."

Does that mean every Republican in Congress has sworn off trying to use the debt ceiling as leverage? Not necessarily.

To some of the tea party members of Congress who spearheaded the doomed strategy to demand an end to Obama's healthcare law as the price of keeping the government open, the lesson was that their own party wasn't tough enough.

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