(CNN) — The agreement reached by President Obama and Congress to reopen the government and avoid default was a punt, a punt that traveled 15 yards. It wasn’t a budget agreement because nothing in it addressed any budgetary issues, nor was it a spending agreement, because spending continues at its current pace. It was a process agreement that saved the day, although the same fights that led to this crisis have been merely rescheduled. Another government shutdown is looming on January 16 and the nation will hit its debt limit on February 7.
As far as government work goes, it’s about the best we can expect.
And that’s the problem: The failure of our government to work properly, thanks to the weak leadership and ideological, re-distributionist preferences of President Obama combined with a deeply divided Republican caucus, means we’re likely to go through the same saga again. It’s also a reflection of how massive the nation’s debt problem is and how difficult it will be to reduce it.
Here’s what has gone wrong. Let’s start with the tea party.
The tea party has been blamed more than any other group for the standoff of the past month. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and dozens of House Republicans have taken the brunt of the blame as the image of the Republican Party has hit record lows.
The tea party’s dedication to repealing Obamacare and shrinking the size of government, as opposed to simply slowing the rate of growth, is admirable and desirable. Those goals unite the Republican Party. But tea party objectives will not be achieved if it doesn’t change tactics.
Under our Constitution, massive overnight change is impossible unless you win elections. If the tea party wants results, it needs to elect candidates who can win and deliver votes in the House and Senate. In many ways, the tea party’s fight is not with President Obama or with Speaker John Boehner. It’s with James Madison. The tea party can’t be President Obama’s check and balance without realizing that under our Constitution the President also gets to be the tea party’s check and balance.
The fundamental error Republicans made in this fight was overreach. In trying to repeal Obamacare, Cruz and the tea party led Republicans into a fight that could not be won because they did not have the votes to win it. It’s that simple.
The only way to successfully enact laws or repeal them is to have the votes. Instead, this fight unrealistically raised the hopes of the GOP base for an effort that never had a chance. Ultimately, legislation like keeping the government open or increasing the debt limit must pass, but that doesn’t mean anything can be attached to it. Republicans turned a must-pass goal into a will fail effort.
The tea party rebuttal? That type of practical approach is why Washington is a mess to begin with. They say they don’t care about the politics, they ardently are trying to save the nation. Fair points. But the nation won’t be saved if they can’t muster the votes to save it.
As for President Obama, if he wanted to achieve a fundamental grand bargain with Republicans, he would have done so in 2011 when an agreement with Republicans was in sight. He talks like a centrist willing to break with liberal economic ideology, but from the stimulus to Obamacare to his push for tax increases, he has no record of governing like one.
Instead, he is driven to redistribute things, whether it’s income, wealth or in the case of Obamacare, health insurance. He views the role of government as taking things of value from one citizen so they can be given to another. He promised that if you liked your health insurance you could keep it. Of course it’s not as simple as that, as people are now realizing. For example, some companies may be dumping part or all their health coverage as Obamacare comes online, leaving employees to pay higher premiums and in some cases getting less coverage on the exchanges, according to a National Journal analysis.
Obama says the debt is a “long-term” problem, ignoring that it has grown from $10.6 trillion to nearly $17 trillion on his watch. He refuses to make any fundamental changes to Obamacare but he insists that Republicans agree to additional tax increases. Throughout the recent impasse, he refused to negotiate.
His poll numbers are around the worst levels of his presidency. The Real Clear Politics average shows more than half the country disapproves of the way he is handling his job. He is an unpopular president.
The tea party gets stuck with the extremist label, but for many, it’s Obama’s policies that are extreme.
Unless the just completed battle has exhausted both sides and they suddenly see merit in compromise and negotiation, January will be a repeat of October. In that case, the only issue left is which party do the voters kick out when they realize the only thing elected officials know how to do is punt?
Editor’s note: Ari Fleischer was White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2003 and is the president of Ari Fleischer Sports Communications Inc. Follow him on Twitter: @AriFleischer
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ari Fleischer.