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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

WASHINGTON — “Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed.”

It was the early 20th century socialist Eugene V. Debs who pointed to the utility of this extra Beatitude. You don’t have to be a lefty to appreciate its relevance to our politics after the shutdown disaster.

Cynicism about the political future is a default position with a great deal of evidence behind it. We seem incapable of reaching compromises or even finding ways to differ productively. Even elections don’t seem to settle things.

Against this grain, I suggest that we allow ourselves a margin of hope in the wake of the decisive defeat of the extremists who closed the government down to accomplish absolutely nothing. It is a hope tempered by humility. Giant leaps ahead aren’t in the cards. But some important things changed for the better because of this battle.

It almost certainly ended the GOP’s routine use of threatened catastrophe as a form of leverage. In an interview with National Review’s Robert Costa, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was direct. “A government shutdown is off the table,” he said. “We’re not going to do it.”

True, McConnell doesn’t speak for the conservative fringe. But the costs of this escapade were so high that Republicans know how much they’d be hurt in the 2014 elections if they tried a shutdown again. As for not raising the debt ceiling, House Speaker John Boehner blinked before throwing the nation into the abyss, and thank God he did. Because it’s now clear that the debt-ceiling weapon is so toxic as to be unusable, Congress might rid us of this relic of World War I finances.

With contrived crises off the table, there is the possibility of normal governance. The Democrats’ overlooked victory (other than avoiding an economic meltdown) is the instruction that the House and Senate, having passed two very different budgets, sit down to work things out.

Outside groups: Please stop touting a “grand bargain.” There can be no grand bargain right now because Republicans are not inclined to agree to any new revenues and Democrats rightly won’t concede anything on the big retirement programs unless revenues are on the table. Pushing for a grand bargain now will only invite disappointment. And those who seek one even if it contains no new revenues will be revealing that their true priority is slashing Social Security and Medicare rather than achieving sustainable fiscal balance.

But Republicans and Democrats could come together around what we might call confidence building measures, a Cold War term sadly appropriate to the moment.