The US budget battle was always likely to end in a Republican defeat and a rout for Tea Party firebrands; but the outcome has turned out to be even more dramatic: an unconditional surrender, instead of the negotiated ceasefire. Trying to spot historic turning points in real time is always risky, but the scale of this debacle suggests that US politics and economic policy really will be transformed in at least four important ways.
First, the shift in the balance of power between Obama and the Republicans since last November has been spectacularly confirmed. It is too early to guess whether the GOP’s slumping popularity will give the Democrats a chance to regain control of the House of Representatives next November. The Democrats would be very likely to achieve this if they could hold on to their present lead of 5.5 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average of Congressional vote polling, since this would represent a swing in favour of the Democrats of 4%, which should suffice to win the extra 17 seats they would need to win control.
Conventional wisdom in Washington contends that a Democratic win next year is almost impossible because of a historic tendency of presidential parties to lose votes in midterm elections, but this history has little statistical significance, and is counterbalanced by the voting figures from the three occasions since 1945 when parties that lost the popular vote kept control of the House. In all these cases the majority party in the House only lost the popular vote by tiny margins—in 1952, by 0.5%, in 1996 by 0.7% and in 2012 by 1.2%. So an election in which the Republicans lost the popular vote by 5.5%, as indicated by recent polling, but kept control would create a totally unprecedented situation. In any case, speculation about next year’s election is pointless since the polls are likely to shift abruptly—one way or the other and for reasons we cannot even imagine today. What is clear, however, is that the Republicans face deep unpopularity in the short-term and this will transform the outlook for economic policy in the next few months.
Republicans now lack the confidence, the unity and the public support to risk another major battle over budgets in December or debt limits in February. An army in flight cannot suddenly turn around and mount a successful counter-attack. Regrouping a routed army takes months, if not years.