A strange new normal has descended over Washington. The government shutdown costs the U.S. economy vast sums, public trust in the country's leaders sinks to new lows, and yet somehow, all the main players declare victory.
To an outsider, it's difficult to spot a winner in this mess. America's political system is gridlocked, its people divided and the government in danger of being unable to pay its bills – or even remain open. However, the odd reality is that there's some substance to each side's claim of success.
It all depends on what their objective was.
Senator Ted Cruz, Republican
The Canadian-born freshman senator from Texas who ignited the effort to defund Obamacare got nothing in terms of skewering the president's signature health-care scheme. But he vaulted himself onto the national stage with a fervour and a following that may launch a 2016 presidential bid. Despite public condemnation by some Republican moderates who were irked that Mr. Cruz had painted the party into a unwinnable corner, the outspoken new Tea Party darling was unrepentant. Even as his own party leader Sen. Mitch McConnell was speaking on the Senate floor, Mr. Cruz seized the spotlight before the TV cameras in the corridors outside.
Losing may be winning for Mr. Cruz, especially if it starts a run for the Oval Office. "This is a terrible deal. This deal embodies everything about the Washington Establishment that frustrates the American people. This deal kicks the can down the road. It allows yet more debt, more deficit, more spending and it does absolutely nothing to provide relief for the millions of Americans who are hurting because of Obamacare," he said in what sounded suspiciously like a campaign speech.
President Barack Obama
Mr. Obama's steadfast refusal to negotiate with, as he put it, a gun to his head, served him well. Backed by the steely Senator Harry Reid who cut the deal, the president didn't blink and emerged from the showdown with Obamacare intact. But while the debt ceiling will be raised and the government re-opened, the deal only buys a few weeks until another showdown looms. For a president who claimed he would bring a new era of bipartisanship to Washington, the outlook for progress on other major issues – like immigration reform – is bleak.
"There are no winners," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. That may be truer than he intended. Even the president signaled that playing hardball isn't enough. "There is a lot of work ahead of us, including our need to earn back the trust of the American people that has been lost over the last few weeks," he said.
Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democrat Sen. Patty Murray
Out of the wreckage of the latest impasse the so-called budget conference committee, co-chaired by Mr. Ryan and Ms. Murray, will try and hammer out a new budget within weeks. But there's also hope for a 'grand bargain' – a sweeping deal encompassing entitlements and tax reforms that has eluded a divided and bitter Congress for years. Whether the next set of deadlines – the government is funded only until Jan. 15, the debt ceiling runs out Feb. 7 and sequester cuts arrive Mar. 1 – will be sufficient to produce real compromise and progress remains unclear. If it does, then the American people may turn out to be the winners.
Speaker John Boehner, Republican
Faced with the impossible task of crafting Republican unity on a cause already lost, it would be easy to simply say Mr. Boehner lost. In the end, he admitted as much. "We fought the good fight. We just didn't win."
But Mr. Boehner had a losing hand from the beginning; a riven caucus, a restive right-wing demanding a hopeless, last-ditch effort to defund Obamacare after it was already in place and less leverage over the president than in previous showdowns. At best, Mr. Boehner could limit the damage. Even after most House Republicans voted against the deal – only 87 of 231 backed their leader – they all stood and gave the beleaguered speaker a standing ovation in caucus. That may turn out to be symbolic if a revolt emerges to challenge his leadership. But for the fractious Republicans, the showdown was just the latest battle in a bitter struggle for the future of the party.
Mr. Boehner managed to emerge scarred but standing. With another set of deadlines only months away, he may have proved to the party's right-wing that it's critical to fight on ground you can win.