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If you've been watching Congress closely for the past two years -- watching budget fight after budget fight suffocate just about every other major legislative priority -- it's hard to imagine the same partisan arrangement on Capitol Hill setting aside brinksmanship and pursuing a constructive agenda, or perhaps just do nothing at all instead. That this could all end in a whimper.
But it could! And if that's how things shake out, Obama will have to make peace with a second term fiscal agenda that falls well short of the one he outlined during the campaign. Less tax revenue than he wanted from the wealthy. No new jobs spending. Long-term investments badly underfunded. An Internet weblogging sector deprived of steady "Congressional incompetence" content. The end of the budgeting crisis era will be a silver lining around the fact that Congress has stuck the country with inadequate but fairly permanent economic policies, and probably isn't capable of doing any better.
So that's embarrassing.
But as a kind of consolation prize, we've learned a lot about what Democrats and Republicans stand for along the way, at least in their current incarnations. Republicans (broadly speaking -- there are obviously many exceptions) value Paul Ryan's economic agenda more than they value their commitments to culture war policies. And to the extent that they've accepted the inviability of the entire economic agenda, they prioritize low taxes over their desires to keep military spending permanently high and cut social welfare programs.
Meanwhile we've learned that Democrats have a politically adept answer to starve-the-beast legislating -- but one that so far hasn't knocked the GOP off its absolute unwillingness to increase taxes. Democrats stopped being afraid to vote for higher taxes on the wealthy, and essentially established GOP buy-in on higher taxes as an essential requirement for Democratic support for slashing social insurance. On a deeper level, Democrats will prioritize cuts to Medicare providers over beneficiaries, and progressive benefit cuts over broad-based ones. Ironically, the only thing that's stood in the way of these cuts is Republicans, whose obsession with cutting these programs took us down this road in the first place.
That's the status quo the election left us. Over time it will probably change. In fact, it has to. Demographic realities mean it could happen sooner than expected. But absent an unexpected, exogenous crisis, or a shift of values within one of the parties, there's just not a lot of room for a budget deal right now.