The temperature in Washington, D.C., dipped into the 20s last week, and here in the capital, that seems to be the point when hell freezes over: President Obama reached an agreement on the Bush tax cuts with the Republican Senate leader who said "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Sen. Bernard Sanders, a socialist from Vermont, and Sen. Jim DeMint, an archconservative from South Carolina, threatened to filibuster the agreement. Liberal Democrats said they'd prefer a permanent extension of most of the tax cuts, and the architect of those cuts said the country couldn't afford anything more than a temporary extension.
It's been a little confusing.
But it's also been clarifying. The tax-cut deal — in which the Republicans will give the White House about $300 billion in stimulus in return for the White House giving Republicans about $130 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans — laid bare some old and new realities of how Washington works (and doesn't work) right now. It's worth going through them one by one:
* No one really cares about the deficit. No sooner had Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles completed their work on the deficit-reduction package than Democrats and Republicans reached a bipartisan accord to add $900 billion to the debt. Republicans wanted their unpaid-for tax cuts for the rich, Democrats wanted their unpaid-for stimulus measures, and both sides wanted the unpaid-for tax cuts for income under $250,000. I think it's appropriate to spend while the economy is weak and then repay when it's strong, but then I didn't just get elected to Congress by promising to rein in spending.
* Obama is better at the inside game than the outside game. Sarah Palin likes to ask the president "how that hopey-changey stuff" is going. The answer, it seems, is that the changey stuff is going well, but the hopey stuff is proving more troublesome. Obama might have campaigned in 2008 as the inspirational newcomer who had no patience for the broken ways of Washington, but he has governed like a Washington veteran with little patience for inspired outsiders. In health care reform, in the stimulus, in financial regulation and in the tax-cut deal, Obama has been a tough negotiator able to move his agenda through a gridlocked Congress — but he has not been able to excite Democrats or inspire popular support for his initiatives. He has been prickly when questioned about it.
* And he's not over health care reform. Among the president's most passionate moments during the post-deal news conference was his long, impromptu scolding of dissatisfied progressives who are making this into "the public option debate all over again." Obama went on to complain that liberals were so focused on the public option that they lost sight of the rest of the health care bill — which was much larger. And he's right about that. But it's also time for him to get over it.
* Republicans really, really, really care about tax cuts for rich people. Many Democrats had been operating under the theory that Republicans would simply obstruct everything Democrats attempted, as that was the best way to make Obama a one-termer. At least when it comes to tax cuts for very wealthy Americans, that's not true. Republicans agreed to far more in unemployment insurance and stimulus proposals than anyone expected, and sources who were involved in the negotiations agree that the mistake Democrats made going in was underestimating how much Republicans wanted the tax cuts for the rich extended.
* It's still Ronald Reagan's world, at least when it comes to taxes. The Sturm und Drang over the tax cuts for the rich obscured the Democrats' massive capitulation on the tax cuts for everyone else. Even the party's liberals had accepted Obama's argument that the tax cuts for income of less than $250,000 — which includes the bulk of the Bush tax cuts — should be permanently extended. Another way of saying that is Democrats had agreed that the Clinton-era tax rates were too high. If you put it to most Democrats that way, they'd protest vigorously. The economy boomed under Clinton, and the Democratic Party is proud of the efforts it made to balance the budget. But Democrats are so terrified of being accused of raising taxes that they've conceded to the Bush tax rates for 98 percent of Americans.
* We need tax reform, now more than ever. The end result of this deal is going to be an even weirder tax code than we have now — and the one we have now is pretty weird. We're extending old tax cuts and credits and adding new ones. Some of those may be extended further. Businesses won't want to see deductions for investments expire, and workers won't want to see the payroll-tax cut expire, and the super-rich won't want to see the tax exemption for estates up to $5 million expire. There are so many constituencies fighting for so many breaks that the only hope we're going to have when we actually do need to reduce the deficit — which isn't yet, but will be soon — is to start from square one on the tax code.