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A Hold-Your-Nose Deal

A Hold-Your-Nose Deal

By Eugene Robinson - August 2, 2011

WASHINGTON -- It's supremely galling. It's unbalanced, unfair and mostly unwise. For President Obama and the Democratic Party, it's a comprehensive defeat. But it's not the end of the world.

The deal struck Sunday to free the U.S. economy from its Republican hostage-takers is impossible for progressives to love. It gets all the big things wrong, starting with the most fundamental: Obama never should have acquiesced in linking a routine hike in the debt ceiling -- necessary to pay bills Congress has already incurred -- with all the difficult spending questions that should be dealt with in the budget process.

Obama's starting point was a demand for a "clean," unencumbered bill to raise the ceiling; House Speaker John Boehner said no. What would have happened if Obama refused to budge? We don't know because that's not his style. It would be nice, someday, to find out.

Once this became a debate about debt reduction and national priorities, it was obvious that budget cuts needed to be matched by new revenue. After all, if you look at historical norms, spending is too high and tax receipts are too low by about the same amount. Obama commandeered the bully pulpit and demanded a "balanced approach" that included revenue. He inveighed against undertaxed "millionaires and billionaires" who fly around in corporate jets. Polls showed that by a considerable margin, the public agreed.

Republicans insisted on budget cuts only, with not a cent of new revenue -- and that, ladies and gentlemen, is what they got. There's no way to spin it: Boehner and the GOP won. Obama and the Democrats lost.

This isn't a rout, however. It's a retreat, in relatively good order, that leaves Democrats provisioned for the battles to come.

The White House agreed to $900 billion in budget cuts over 10 years -- in the absence of new tax revenue, a galling surrender. But the deal is structured so the slicing and dicing does not really begin until the 2013 fiscal year, which gives the struggling economy some time to find its feet -- not as much time as most economists would recommend, but better than nothing.

The cuts exempt Medicaid and other programs for the poor -- although there is no provision for extending unemployment benefits, a serious defect. And the cuts do not touch Medicare benefits, which preserves a key Democratic campaign issue: the Republican plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program that would leave seniors at the mercy of the private health insurance market.

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eugenerobinson@washpost.com

Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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