Debt Deal Drama: Obama Loses, Jim DeMint the Big Winner

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Senator Jim DeMint was not one of the major political players whose every move we watched this weekend, but he was the animator of much of the high stakes drama over raising the debt ceiling and cutting the national debt.  DeMint has been the driver of the 'never give up, never surrender' drum beat of the largely freshman class of Tea Party conservatives in both the Senate and the House.  DeMint provided muscle and counsel to Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his posturing during this debate.

House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and President Obama and Vice President Biden have essentially been negotiating with the DeMint camp through proxies -- making DeMint, for the moment anyway, the most powerful, albeit behind the scenes, political figure in the country next to the President.

Details of the so-called "debt deal" are still emerging, but as line item wins and losses are tallied, the President won almost nothing of significance and the GOP won the day on substantive deliverables. (Major Garrett on wins and losses.)

According to the Associated Press' David Espo, the President won time in not having another debt standoff until after the 2012 election.  The White House also said the Department of Defense could face cuts -- which it was facing anyway -- and while this is a loss for Team DeMint, it gets to paint Obama as an anti-Pentagon national security weakling vs. the more muscular right.

According to Espo, Obama has reportedly conceded not extending the current payroll tax holiday beyond 2011.  Happy holidays folks. And more disturbingly, Team DeMint secured the expiration of unemployment benefits for victims of the recession.

And what of those once-temporary Bush tax cuts for the rich.  They stay, at least so far.

Obama-supporters are saying that they have averted disaster by giving DeMint, Eric Cantor and their Tea Party comrades a "vote" on a balanced budget amendment sometime in the last three months of 2011 -- rather than allowing an increase in the debt ceiling to be tied to the guaranteed passage of such a Constitutional amendment.  Most analysts believe that such an amendment would cripple the ability of the nation to deal with significant economic crises and downturns.  Such an amendment would have preempted entirely the stimulus package -- organized by the George W. Bush administration to the greatest economic shock to hit the US economy since the Great Depression.

But bottom line is that the Tea Party patriots got a vote on the balanced budget amendment, and President Obama got nothing. 

And most dramatically not on the Obama vs DeMint & Co tally sheet are revenue increases -- which Dems are today saying they will renew a push for later this year.

John Boehner lost in this debt squeeze standoff by allowing himself to be repeatedly tripped up and undermined by his own team.  Eric Cantor wins and looks today ever stronger to eventually succeed the worried and wobbly speakership of Boehner.

But the Commander in Chief of the operation, the one who threatened Senators who voted for any package that included tax increases (aka revenue increases), who got Tea Party and other conservative organizations to call and threaten House Members who went along with Boehner's first two or three plans, the one who scripted Eric Cantor's high drama moments quitting the talks, who continued to run the resistance against the Boehner plan even when Cantor finally joined up with his leader to gin up votes, was Senator Jim DeMint.

Barack Obama's playbook is now understood by the DeMint team.  Obama prides himself on doing whatever needs to be done to govern, to compromise, to do the wrenching, hard negotiating to get to a deal.  One of Obama's chief strategists once told me that there are many on the left who want Obama to be more ideologically committed, to take a stand out of principle and stay there -- but in the end, this adviser said, "the American people want to see a President who governs and gets things done."

The problem with that formulation is that Obama's opponents know that their best strategy is to stonewall, resist, defect, defame, and say no to everything.  It creates the impression that Obama and Dems concede defeat and Republicans declare victory before the battle has even really started.

Barack Obama had a chance to demonstrate that he had a little FDR in him -- by taking the recalcitrance of the DeMint camp and crushing it through executive authority, by triggering the authorities of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Constitution -- and forcing a great national fight over the system of checks and balances between branches of government. 

Bill Clinton would have done the same.  Reagan too I think.  LBJ and FDR also.  But fundamentally, Obama chose muddling through, conceding to the hard core fiscal right -- only to assure that Senator Jim DeMint's hard-edged and politically hungry team will engage in similar battles with the White House over and over and over again.

Presented by

Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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